Warner Bros. // 2014 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // June 25th, 2014
Seize your glory.
When I heard another installment of the 300 franchise was on the way, I balked. The original was a thrilling bonanza of machismo and stylized violence -- but where was the story going to go exactly? Was there any tread left on the codpiece?
Parallel to the Spartans setting up their suicidal choke point at the hot gates of Thermopylae, Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton, Strike Back) seeks to engage the marauding Persian war machine on the high seas. He leads his severely outmatched fleet of triremes against a horde of Persian warships, commanded by the feared Artemisia (Eva Green, Casino Royale). At stake: the fate of Greece, the grand democracy experiment and the lives of thousands of computer-generated half-naked men.
I'll be straight with you: any initial skepticism I had going into this immediately evaporated in the opening sequence. Rise of an Empire kicks off with the Battle of Marathon, a rousing sequence featuring Themistocles leading an assault and it's filled with all the bombast and bloodshed and slow-motion lightning strikes and driving percussion that go along with the 300 name. I was all in at that point and, thankfully, as the film unspooled, the good times continued to roll.
Maybe I'm a cheap date? I suppose that's entirely possible, but if Rise of an Empire had been just a rehash of the original and felt like an obvious cash grab my interest would have been dulled considerably. Which is what surprised me most about the film: the story was worth telling. Combined with the relentless pace (this one has more per capita action than the first) and the sensory overload, Rise of an Empire quickly rose up the leaderboards for my favorite movie of 2014.
This isn't high art. The characters still serve up bumper-sticker-level monologues about freedom and tyranny and freedom and freedom and the most layered arc has to do with a father and a son and the father's stubborn realization that his boy is growing up before his eyes (i.e., a plotline we've all seen a million other times). This is the bare minimum of character development to hold a plot together, for sure, but I didn't mind because A) I'm a sucker for this type of Band-of-Brothers grist and B) that's really not what this movie is about anyway.
Granted that sounds like a cop-out, but it's obvious from the first sword thrust, this is a movie that sets out to entertain, to deliver major bang for your buck, to blast you out of your seat, and on that calculus it's a roaring success. What was particularly refreshing is that there was enough differentiation from the first film to give Rise of an Empire autonomy. Specifically:
Look, Sullivan Stapleton is no Gerard Butler. He gives it his all, belting out the manliest one-liners available, but he just doesn't have that deranged animalistic howl that catapulted Butler from relative obscurity into a career of making terrible romantic comedies with Katherine Heigl. But, Stapleton brings a great physical ferocity to his fight scenes and he is indeed able to carry the movie. It helps that the character he plays is different enough from Leonidas and the rest of the Spartans; as a "free Greek," his role is to build consensus and inspire ordinary men to sail into battle. Themistocles is an unchained bad-ass, but he's an honorable guy committed to the concept of democracy and that sets him up as nice complement to the dudes in red waging war in Thermopylae (in fact, there are some interesting moments where, through Themistocles' eyes, we see that the Spartans were actually kinda out of their minds).
Artemisia is easily the most interesting character on the screen at any time and Eva Green devours her scenery with the appetite of an emaciated leopard in a hot dog factory. Can it be a bit too much? Sure. Her dinosaur bone war dress looks like something I scribbled in my Earth Science textbook in ninth grade and the out-of-nowhere sex scene she ignited with Themistocles makes zero sense, but if enduring this excess is the price for a villainess who is utterly, joyfully deranged, I'll pay it happily. (Although, if you look a little deeper you realize that she's not the amazing naval tactician her CV claims she is; as far as I can tell, the bulk of her nautical strategy involves sitting on a chair watching with disapproving glowers as her ships sink.)
The battle scenes
To me, the seafaring mayhem is largely made Rise of an Empire work. The ship-to-ship combat is a blast to watch and the engagements are varied enough to keep it interesting. Granted, these battles aren't historically accurate, but we all go into it knowing this is a fantasy version of true events, so director Noam Murro cranks it up with flame-throwing Persian battleships and fog ambushes and no-holds barred portside throwdowns with the Immortals. The CGI blood flows as copiously as in the original 300, but the salt water mix makes Rise's havoc a little more fun.
The movie's a good time, but the Blu-ray is a technical marvel. Perfect scores for audio and visual, which may have just become the standard in my house as the perfect reference disc (providing the people I show it to are old enough not to be traumatized by decapitations). The 2.4:1, 1080p transfer is among the best I have ever seen, offering up smooth, clear visuals and perfect rendering of the mountain of visual effects. This was a film made to be seen in high definition and anything less than an eye-burner would have taken away from the viewing experience. The audio holds up its end of the bargain, blasting out an all-too-rare DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix. The sound is spread out generously among every channel and the bass will shake your neighbors' walls (my wife more than a few times made me turn it down). It's all featurettes for the extras: a 30-minute, four-part behind-the-scenes documentary; "Real Leaders & Legends," a look at the actual history behind the film; Eva Green and Lena Headey are the focus for "Women Warriors"; "Savage Warships" examines the naval components; and "Becoming a Warrior" offers a quick peek at the training regimen.
As I look over this review I can see how someone might come away thinking the film isn't that great. Here's the straight dope: what 300: Rise of an Empire lacks in character development and witty writing, it more than makes up for with sheer experience. This is a glorious, blood-soaked, adrenaline-pumping theme park ride and the louder and bigger you can watch it, the goofier your smile will look on your stupid face.
Not guilty. Glory seized!
Review content copyright © 2014 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2014
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* UltraViolet Download
* Official Site