When the original 300 came out I remember at first liking it but upon further viewings it became more and more problematic for me. See, Frank Miller is a right wing nut job and 300 is, at best, a set of pretty 1 dimensional characters in a story that is hero worship of what is effectively a selfish and fascist society. 300: Rise of an Empire is interesting then in that in addition to having better developed characters (antagonists especially) acknowledges that fact and says _”that’s what they’re doing, that’s not really cool, but maybe we can use their machismo BS to our advantage”.
300: Rise of an Empire is also interesting because it takes place before, during, and after the events of 300, telling the story of how the rest of Greece reacted to the Persian invasion. The hero this time around is Themistocles, the Greek soldier and general who turned back the previous Persian invasion by killing King Darius and unwittingly spurring the second invasion by failing to kill Xerxes.
Themistocles hears of the second coming invasion and tries to rally support the city states of Greece to work together, which doesn’t really work because Sparta doesn’t commit and instead Leonidas and his 300 head to the Hot Gates. Themistocles then takes the entire Navy assembled from the remaining city states to stall the Persian navy long enough for the 300 to die and become martyrs for the rest of Greece to truly rally around and in doing so has to square off against Eva Greens Artemisia, the psychotic and sexual Persian naval commander.
In 300 Leonidas is the leader of 300 professional soldiers, all ready, willing, and hoping for a glorious death. Themistocles navy is made up of conscripts and volunteers, the very sort that Leonidas and company make fun of in the first movie. Themistocles himself is in charge because he’s smart and honourable, not because he’s the brawniest of the bunch. All of this provides some nice contrast to the “might makes right” view espoused in the first movie, the democracy that the Spartans made fun of is literally the thing that the Athenian Greeks are fighting for (and they’ll tell you over and over again).
Sullivan Stapleton plays Themistocles differently too, understated as compared to Gerard Butler’s completely over the top Leonidas. He’s actually good, like, not ridiculous and actually acts and is good in the role. Also important, he handles himself really well in the combat scenes, all of which are pretty much completely bad ass. Yes, there’s some ridiculous use of slow motion but everything is well enough put together that it didn’t really annoy me like it has i the past. This is likely to do with director Noam Murro doing his best to ape Zack Snyders style from 300 but making it a little less… frantic.
The real star of the movie here is Eva Green and if nothing else the entire movie is worth seeing just for her. She doesn’t just steal scenes, she runs off with the whole movie. And then beats the crap out of it with a riding crop. Artemisia is scary. Her background and personal motives for revenge are incredibly sympathetic but her present in the film is so scary that you almost feel bad for the other bad guys around here, even Xerxes who turns out to be a spoiled man child and not much else. She has all the best one liners and when it comes time for her to actually fight she tears up the screen.
For a sequel to a film that was accused of such misogyny it’s nice that one of the two central characters is not only a woman, but a well developed one too.
300: Rise of an Empire isn’t exactly high art but it’s a fun movie with that has a boat load (pun intended) of great action scenes, all the actual scope that it’s predecessor lacked, and a new standard for women bad ass villain? What else do I really need to say here?