There are three different types of sequels. Some, like “Godfather II” and “The Empire Strikes Back”, continue the story with the same quality. Others, like “Aliens” and Terminator II”, go in a different direction than the original and make a mark of their own. And then we have sequels like “Hangover II” and “Home Alone 2” which simply exist to remind viewers of what they loved in the original. “300: Rise of an Empire” is firmly in that category. The plot template was dusted off and ramped up to please its target audience. Mission partly accomplished.
The film picks up at the time of the Battle of Thermopylae, but a flashback covers the Battle of Marathon from ten years previously. Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) not only conceives the strategy and leads the 300esque slaughtering and blood-splattering, but kills the Persian Emperor Darius. In the interim before the Persians return for their second attempt at conquest, Darius’ “warrior protégé” Artemisia (Eva Green) goes beyond making a man out of his son Xerxes. She makes a god out of him and then sees to it that she is the power behind the throne. She also commands the fleet. Why would a Greek queen side with the Persians? The rape and murder of her family by the Greeks and her subsequent years as a sex slave have made her one vengeful female and she’s been trained Batman/Matrix/Kill Bill style.
Meanwhile, back in Greece, Themistocles is organizing the defense of Greek FREEDOM. His trip to visit Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) finds her in mourning and in no mood to join a united Greece. It looks like the Spartans will sit out the sequel. They have decided “been there, done that”. So much for those awesome infantry battles. How about if we substitute land warfare on the sea? This could work! Just tweak the plot a bit and…
While the events of “300” are transpiring on the same screen eight years ago, Themistocles is fighting the Battle of Artemisium to gain time and block Artemisia’s fleet. It’s a three round heavyweight bout that has cut-men babbling insanely in their corners. There is some ramming, but mostly boarding. You’ve got to be impressed with ancient footwear as I did not see a single combatant slip on the gallons of blood spilled on the decks. For that matter, I don’t recall anyone tripping on the numerous severed limbs.
Between rounds, as the audience is supposed to be catching its breath, comes the soon to become iconic scene in teenage boydom. Themistocles visits Artemisia and they “negotiate”. Or as a three year old who wanders into his parent’s bedroom would assume, they were wrestling. Extreme wrestling. Eva Green seals her place in war movie history with this scene.
Since round three has to top the other two that means it’s time for some anachronistic explosions. What’s the one thing “300” lacked? Fire! Do you remember the ninja zombies and war mastodons from the original? Here we get human-bomb frogmen and corpse-eating sea monsters.
Spoiler alert to the historically illiterate: Xerxes sacks Athens. Themistocles paltry fleet, sans the suddenly wimpy Spartans, are waiting at Salamis for the rematch. Artemisia urges the uncharacteristically cautious Xerxes to rush in and finish the Greeks. What could go wrong in a battle where it looks like the Persians outnumber the Greeks by 500 ships against 5?
In typical sequel fashion, “300: Rise of an Empire” is not up to the original. This is not surprising considering the uniqueness of the original. The sequel to “Sin City” will have the same problem. This does not mean they shouldn’t be made. Fans demand a rematch just like after a great boxing match. Noone complained when Ali and Frazier punched each other again in the “Thrilla in Manilla”. With that caveat, this sequel is not unusual in lacking the “charm” of the original. It just does not have the flair. This can partly be attributed to the battles not being as interesting as Thermopylae. Plus the sequel can repeat much of the structure of the original, but even a rote sequel is not going to be able to repeat the Spartan culture that laid the groundwork for the first film.
The sequel reflects others of its ilk by ramping up the violence. There is more blood, more dismemberments, more of everything that made the original so visceral. If you hated “300” you will undoubtedly hate this movie. I guarantee you no critic who did not like the original will like this one instead. Well, possibly some feminists might be swayed by Eva Green’s performance. She is the one original thing about the movie and the Artemisia character prevents the movie from being “Hangover II”. (In this respect she reminds of adding Joe Pesci to Lethal Weapon 2.) It will be hard to forget two of her scenes. One is when she kisses the decapitated head of a captive. And the other isn’t. Go see the movie. The rest of the actors are satisfactory, but not as appealing as the originals. Stapleton is sturdy, but I doubt he will get the bounce that Gerard Butler got. Such a bounce that he is the only significant no show in the sequel.
The biggest problem is (drum roll please) the raping of history. I had complimented “300” for being admirably accurate for a movie based on a graphic novel, especially when it did not have to be accurate at all. The sequel does not even attempt to adhere to the facts. Where you got the basic gist of the Battle of Thermopylae, here we have little that is recognizable. This is especially true of the portrayal of Artemisia. I will do a later post on the specific mistakes, but in many ways the movie is exactly the opposite of reality. Speaking of reality, it would be dickish to insist on it in a movie such as this. All you can ask is that you not be brought to laughter. There were two moments in the film where I could not keep from laughing. One involved Themistocles riding a horse across the flaming decks. Sometimes what is meant to be awesome ends up being awful.
In short, if you loved “300” you will like “300: Rise of an Empire”. It is more of the same, including bare chests. It should please all the sexual orientations.