Movies Without Pity
<i>300: Rise of An Empire</i> — This Is… a Repeat!

Zack Snyder may be off ruining Superman, but his slow-mo, ultraviolent aesthetic lives on in 300: Rise of An Empire, a semi-sequel to the director's 2007 hit that's such a close replica of its predecessor, it's practically a Gus Van Sant-style remake. Though it technically tells an "original" story with "new" characters, Empire (which Snyder produced and Israeli director Noam Murro directed) shares not just the same stylistic flourishes and war-mongering tone as the original, but also several recurring faces (most notably Rodrigo Santoro's Persian god-king Xerxes and Lena Headey's Queen Gorgo, widow of Gerard Butler's butchered Spartan king, Leonidas) and a "Why We Fight" narrative that mostly runs parallel to the events of the first movie, only branching off in the final 20 minutes. Honestly, the only significant difference between the two films is the dominant color scheme; where 300 was all deep reds and golds, Rise of an Empire is a milky blue, reflecting both the shade of tunics that the Greek warriors wear, as well as the fact that the bulk of this film's CGI-enhanced action occurs at sea.

Considering the phenomenal grosses that the previous 300 racked up, it's understandable that the filmmakers felt little incentive to mess with the movie's stylistic and narrative formula. And, to be perfectly frank, the style was the only interesting thing about Snyder's movie -- derived from Frank Miller's lavishly-illustrated, but substance-challenged graphic novel -- which was otherwise a hodgepodge of hoary macho combat movie clich├ęs, ear-shattering speechifying and a thinly-veiled endorsement of military rule over an elected council. All of those elements are present in Empire as well, although, to be fair, Leonidas's successor, Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), is turned on by the idea of a united Greece whereas Sparta's king was all about Sparta. In this movie's revised timeline, Themistokles even visited Gorgo while her husband was off visiting the Oracles to sell her on the idea of presenting Xerxes with a united front, only to be turned down flat with the same line Leonidas used on that poor Persian emissary he kicked into a well: "This is Sparta." (Taking pity on our hearing, Headey half-whispers this battle-cry instead of screaming it at a volume typically reserved for Nigel Tufnel's amps.)

So while Leonidas is marching off to stare death in the face at the Hot Gates, our Grecian warrior loads his army -- which numbers more than 300, but still far less than Xerxes's hoards -- onto a fleet of longboats and heads out onto open water to meet another heretofore unmentioned person who has been abruptly dropped into the narrative: Xerxes's chief advisor and naval commander Artemisia, played by Eva Green, who sashays into the movie like she just wrapped filming a remake of Caligula on a neighboring soundstage. A ferocious performer who frequently dominates every scene she appears in -- not to mention the men she shares the screen with (not only is she the only Bond Girl to have broken Daniel Craig's cool, but she also shocked Johnny Depp out of his shtick in the otherwise dire Dark Shadows remake) -- Green is a hoot to watch throughout Rise of An Empire, handily stealing the movie away from the stolid Stapleton with her silky delivery, sultry smiles, minxy lethalness and a memorable bit of 3D-enhanced toplessness. (Though it's indicative of 300's general violence-porn aesthetic that the film's lone sex scene is essentially staged as another fight sequence, one that's considerably less glamorous than the endless battles where nameless warriors lose body parts in creative ways and positions. In this franchise, the money shots all showcase spurting blood rather than other bodily fluids.)

Green aside, Rise of an Empire offers very little that you can't get out of re-watching the first movie again, which boasts superior battle sequences -- while Murro stages a few bloodily impressive deaths, the aquatic setting ultimately demands more visual coherence than he and the digital effects team can provide -- and the freshness that accompanies watching a director unpack a new bag of stylistic tricks. Empire is so reluctant to stand alone as its own film that it can't even come up with an actual ending, abruptly cutting to black while leaving several key plot points unresolved, just in case Empire's grosses are high enough to justify a third outing to cover the entirety of the Persian-crushing battle that's previewed in the coda of Snyder's movie. Forget Rise of an Empire -- the movie really should have been slugged More of the Same.

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