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Dustin Putman

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300: Rise of an Empire  (2014)
3 Stars
Directed by Noam Murro.
Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O'Connell, David Wenham, Callan Mulvey, Andrew Tiernan, Ben Turner, Igal Naor, Andrew Pleavin, Caitlin Carmichael, Jade Chynoweth.
2014 – 102 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong bloody violence throughout, sexual content and nudity, and some language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 5, 2014.
Until now, director Noam Murro's biggest claim to fame has been 2008's modest Dennis Quaid-Sarah Jessica Parker-Ellen Page slice-of-life "Smart People"—not exactly an obvious precursor to an effects-heavy graphic novel adaptation that may break a new record in onscreen stabbings and projectile crimson spurting. What is such a kicker, then, is that his delectably insane, technically mesmerizing prequel-cum-sequel to 2007's $210-million-grossing sword-and-sandals historical fantasy "300" takes an immeasurably giant step forward in just about every possible aspect. Suffice it to say, Murro has one-upped the original's director—the supposedly more experienced Zack Snyder (2011's "Sucker Punch")—to a welcomingly auspicious degree. Snyder still participates, adapting for the screen Frank Miller's "Xerxes" graphic novel with co-penner Kurt Johnstad, but "300: Rise of an Empire" will probably not be remembered for its writing (although it is rather strong under the circumstances) so much as for its wildly unapologetic, visually spectacular R-rated orgy of seafaring battles, ravenous animalistic sexuality and extreme ultraviolence.

In a narrative taking place before, concurrently and soon after the events of its predecessor, a Persian army led by the vengeful, bloodthirsty Artemisia (Eva Green) closes in on Greece as Leonidas (played by Gerard Butler in "300") and his 300 Spartan warriors fight up north. A protégé of the late King Darius (Igal Naor), killed by Athenian soldier Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) in a stormy battle along the Greek shores, Artemisia promptly lures his weak royal son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) to a magical lagoon that transforms him into their people's smooth, powerful, multipierced God-King. While he lords over the battle of Thermopylae in which Leonidas is embroiled, Artemisia makes it her personal mission to see the whole of Greece turned to cinder in a literally cutthroat naval invasion. Urged to defend their city-state by Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey), Themistokles and an army of thousands prepare to fight for their freedom—no matter the cost.

Propulsive, immersive and cranked to 11, the vastly scaled "300: Rise of an Empire" makes the first "300" look like a heavily edited network television movie in comparison. Whether it is a case of technology advancements, more money and means, or an overall added confidence in its style and storytelling, this superior follow-up holds a far greater command of its mise en scène. Whereas the earlier feature felt a bit claustrophobic, the cast appearing to always be acting in front of studio green screens, "300: Rise of an Empire" much more seamlessly places its characters in an enveloping, expansive landscape where the so-called digital strings rarely show. Everything, in fact, is told in further-reaching proportions, from the innovative, cohesively mounted action set-pieces, to the hypnotic eye candy of its aesthetics, to the subversive relish with which swords slice through flesh and heads are decapitated (and, in one particularly macabre scene, subsequently made out with).

If hero Themistokles is little more than functional, actor Sullivan Stapleton (2013's "Gangster Squad") most notable for looking like a cross between Patrick Wilson and Michael Vartan, the fearless Eva Green (2012's "Dark Shadows") steals the show enough for the both of them as the wickedly manipulative Artemesia. A woman of savvy physical prowess and emotional corruption, her backstory, like that of Xerxes, coming in flashbacks which inform their present course, Artemesia snarls with uncontrolled deviance while setting her sights squarely upon the man responsible for taking King Darius' life. Their more-than-contentious relationship threatens to boil over in a gleefully over-the-top power struggle played out through a hazardous sexual encounter, the kind not often seen in a studio production—or, for that matter, any production. Meanwhile, Rodrigo Santoro (2013's "The Last Stand") is all the more striking reprising his role as Xerxes because, this time, the complete transformation is revealed of who he once was and what he ultimately has become.

If "300" was unintentionally campy, taking itself far too seriously for such a goofy revisionist depiction of history, "300: Rise of an Empire" embraces its excess with tongue firmly in cheek. "We are turning young men into memories," one of Themistokles' men tells him late in the picture while Queen Gorgo, in voice-over, speaks about the winds of freedom and justice as a breeze permeated with death rustles her hair. This unexpected poeticism, however, approaches thoughtfulness without falling into self-seriousness, sharing time with outrageous lines such as this humdinger from Artemisia to Themistokles: "You fight much harder than you fuck!" Granted, it is amusing to realize that the battles boil down to shirts vs. skins, all of the Persian warriors draped in black while the bare-torsoed Greeks are forever without shirts, but director Noam Murro is undoubtedly in on this embellishment. Certainly no one will have trouble telling the sides apart. Toss in horses galloping across ships and through ocean currents, sea creatures gobbling up fallen men, and rousing nighttime clashes where the sky falls and the moon looms dauntingly above the horizon, and the film excels at journeying beyond the laws of physics onto a cinematic plane where anything is excitingly possible. A juggling of the occasionally experimental with popular entertainment that will have fans of action and spectacle in a 102-minute state of nirvana, "300: Rise of an Empire" has what it takes to bring a sense of awe back to modern audiences no longer easily impressed with fantastical, effects-driven sights.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman