The Pudding Problem
Don't be fooled: though the official run-time for 300: Rise of an Empire is an hour and forty-three minutes, it tops out, substantively, at seventy. Between the slow-motion action scenes, flashbacks, and sweeping views of roiling CGI oceans, Noam Murro's sequel feels not so much half-assed as just unsure if it even wants to retread the ground laid so definitively by Zack Snyder's original.
Sure, many have slagged 2006's 300 for being gaudy, over-the-top, and the most unintentionally (?) homoerotic blockbuster since Top Gun. But it also proved that, with enough imagination, processing power and Chroma Key paint, one could convincingly fashion a blood-soaked, sword-and-sandals epic entirely on a sound stage. It was Lawrence of Arabia for a generation that would never sit still through Lawrence of Arabia.
And I loved it.
Granted, I haven't watched that film in years, but my memories are fond enough to elicit a yawn when I learned a sequel was in the works. It took eight years, but Rise of an Empire proves the new-millennium adage that nothing so successful can simply be appreciated as a unique piece of art; if it's not sequelized, spun-off, or re-made, some team of mid-level executives isn't coming to the studio Christmas party.
So now we must contend with a well-made but utterly useless brand-spore that serves as a prequel, a paraquel, and a sequel to its predecessor. I knew nothing of the story going in, except that god-king Xerxes' (Rodrigo Santoro) origin played a part; that the stunning and always fun Eva Green had a major role; and that the Spartan warriors' motif this time out was blue instead of red. That's pretty much all I left the theatre with, too--along with a giddy sense of elation that I'd witnessed my first 3D/IMAX sex scene (which was a wacky, ultra-naked doozy for the ages*).
There are two main problems here, one of which is evident from the first minute: all the blood in Rise of an Empire (of which there are tankers' worth) looks like red-velvet pudding. The gore is ninety-percent computer-generated, and has a uniformly thick, unrealistic mass and texture that took me right out of the picture. Snyder splattered his frames in Particle Illusion blood, too, but at least it was recognizable as something that might come out of human veins.
The second problem is a lack of Gerard Butler. We get glimpses of his King Leonidas, but are mostly stuck with Sullivan Stapleton as Themistokles. Butler played pensive, macho and fucking crazy in equal measure, and with a convincing charisma that made the actor appear like a genuine warrior from another era (I never thought I'd get misty eyed when the guy who screamed "Tonight we dine in Hell!" died at the end of 300, but I did). In contrast, Stapleton plays the leader of the Athenian navy with all the Royal Shakespeare Company gravitas of the self-serious period epics that have deluged TV since 300 opened those floodgates. Movies like this need a protagonist who exudes madness, not sadness, and it's no surprise that writers Snyder and Kurt Johnstad (working from Frank Miller's graphic novel, "Xerxes") spend so much time on the opposing ship--helmed by Green's Artemisia.
Green gets it, and looks to be having a wonderful time with the material. Her character's background is littered with tragedy, and we see her need to survive savage times morph into an inhuman lust for revenge, power, and a drive to conquer the gods. Unlike many action movies I've endured lately, Artemisia carries herself as a woman among men, instead of a woman trying to act more macho in order to gain the respect of the apes around her. Normally, I would have a big issue with a story that doesn't know which character it's supposed to follow; in the case of Rise of an Empire, I'm really glad the filmmakers forget what they're doing for long stretches and inadvertently focussed on the real star power.
Speaking of powers, did everyone in ancient Greece have super-vision? I lost count of the close-ups on characters' faces as the stared meaningfully at each other from thousands of feet away--usually in the middle of savage battles raging all around them. I know, I know, it's a comic book, or whatever...
Jesus, have I even mentioned the plot? Let me fix that with an elevator pitch: "It's 300 on the water!" That's really it; a few tweaks to the story beats aside (this time, a reckless young warrior loses his dad, instead of the other way around!), Rise of an Empire follows its predecessor to a "T". From the myriad conversations between shirtless, indistinguishable hunks;** to the posturing Xerxes sitting around, not using his alleged god-like powers; to Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) giving seven thousand speeches about something or other, the sequel plods along, fueled only by the ensuing eight years' advancements in digital artistry.
I'm not mad at 300: Rise of an Empire. I just don't care enough to recommend it. The handful of great new material (all of which involve Xerxes and Artemisia) could just as easily have been edited into a ten-minute short film that might appear on the original's 10th anniversary blu-ray. There's certainly no need to pay for the 3D/IMAX up-charge--unless, of course, you plan to actually see this thing in a theatre. In that case, constantly craning your neck to take in the whole vapid image might help you stay awake through all the filler.
*I'm a child. Sue me.
**I'm sure someday one of them will turn out to be the next Michael Fassbender.