The surprising thing about “300: Rise of an Empire” (*** OUT OF ****) is that the Motion Picture Association of America gave it an R-rating. Like its heroic predecessor about the Battle of Thermopylae, this sanguinary, sadomasochistic sequel depicts death by sword, spear, arrow, and oil, with its combatants slashing, hacking, and gashing limbs, legs, necks, and noggins with pugnacious abandon. Despite its ritualistic, CGI-laden depiction of naval battles, this “300” ranks as the bloodiest adventure epic ever produced about warfare during Classical Antiquity. Indeed, I felt like I was watching something that deserved a more appropriate NC-17 rating rather than a benign R-rating. Occasionally, Hollywood augments their fare when they launch them into the home video market with scenes appealing to a less family-friendly demographic. Typically, they synthesize more blood, sex, and violence into the cinematic content because the studios want to attract an audience that embraces a rougher treatment. Undoubtedly, you’ve seen the unrated versions of these DVDs and Blu-Rays. Apparently, the “300: Rise of an Empire” producers decided to retain abundant the graphic violence in their theatrical cut rather than delay it for home video. This gratuitous violence may sicken the squeamish, while gore lovers will applaud the hematic, larger-than-life intensity. Like the original, “300: Rise of an Empire” relies on slow-motion, ballet-like, battle sequences that enable us to appreciate the gravity-defying maneuvers of the combatants as they fight to the death. Comparing it with “Saving Private Ryan,” “300: Rise of an Empire” shows everything but soldiers tangled up in their own intestines. Interestingly enough, this Warner Brothers release imitates the studio’s classic films “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967) and “The Wild Bunch” (1969) that were among the first to wallow in slow-motion violence with arterial blood sprays.
“300: Rise of an Empire” does double duty as both a sequel and a prequel. “300” helmer Zach Snyder and “Act of Valor” scenarist Kurt Johnstad adapted Frank Miller’s unpublished graphic novel “Xerxes.” Their screenplay covers historical action before and after the first film as well as during it. You could describe “300: Rise of an Empire” as the meanwhile back at the ranch movie. Although Snyder and Johnstad make mention of King Leonidas, they have only culled Gerard Butler’s scenes from the original. Now, the battles are shown from the perspective of Athenian statesman Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton of “Gangster Squad”), while Leonidas’ widow chimes in with some narration. Sadly, Stapleton amounts to a rather bland, lackluster protagonist. He doesn’t chew the scenery with the gusto that Gerard Butler did, but his exhortations sound like those of Leonidas. Stapleton doesn’t shout dialogue at the top of his lungs like “This is Sparta!” Although the Australian born Stapleton has a penetrating Montgomery Cliff stare, his Themistokles never overshadows brave King Leonidas. Nevertheless, whatever “Rise of an Empire” lacks in a charismatic hero, Smart People” director Noam Murro more than compensates for this shortcoming with the most extreme villainess. “Casino Royale’s” Eva Green sets the bar for female villains just as “300: Rise of an Empire” creates a new standard for presenting violence in sword and sandal sagas. You’ll still be talking about Green’s dastardly dominatrix Artemisia long after you’ve forgotten about Stapleton’s Themistokles. She doesn’t cut anybody any slack and engages in some pretty audacious acts..
Although King Leonidas and his 300 warriors come up in the conversation, “300: Rise of an Empire” involves Athenians more than Spartans. Ambitious Athenian General Themistokles wants all Greek city-states to unite against the imminent threat King Darius (Igal Naor of “Green Zone”) of Persia poses with his massive military supremacy. As the action unfolds at the historic Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., Themistokles and his men rout Darius and his enormous naval fleet. Our aggressive Athenian champion proves his mettle when he mortally wounds the Persian monarch with a single, well-aimed arrow. Darius’ son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro of “The Last Stand”) reaches his father’s side too late to save him. The Persians retreat as a consequence of Darius’ arrow in the chest. Darius dies in his bed after his semi-adopted daughter Artemisia (Eva Green of “Dark Shadows”) tears the arrow out of his torso without blinking. Afterward, she sends young Xerxes off into the desert on a journey of initiation to become a man. Later, Xerxes returns and resembles the giant with too much jewelry and mascara that he came to be, but he displays his considerable menace with his height and his deep baritone voice. While he dispatches emissaries to approach King Leonidas, Xerxes sends Artemisia and his fleet to contend with the Athenians. Hopelessly outnumbered, the Athenians rely on clever stratagems to blunt Artemisia’s probing incursions. Initially, Themistokles repulses her fleet, but she retaliates with something that the Greeks aren’t prepared for even as they witness it. Eventually, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey of “Game of Thrones”) reappears and spearheads an assault on the Persians along with “300” survivor. Dilios (David Wenham).
Credit goes to Murro for choreographing some dynamic, but aesthetic battle scenes with gallons of ersatz blood and dismembered body parts flying. The naval battles in “300: Rise of an Empire” are nothing short of spectacular whether they are technically accurate or otherwise. Literally, the Greeks are reminiscent of David in his battle against Goliath as they mobilize their much smaller fleet and turn the Persians’ physical might against them. In other words, they rely on strategy forged in the crucible of their own cultural heritage as much as their geographic location. Artemisia’s back story about her captivity in slavery and the tortures that she endured at the hands and other appendages of the Greeks make you sympathize momentarily for her. Indeed, Artemisia makes a memorable villain who overshadows Themistokles. The back story of Xerxes is just as interesting, and the filmmakers have done a good job of converting the six foot, two-and-a-half-inch tall Rodrigo Santoro into a 10-foot giant. Altogether, “300: Rise of an Empire” qualifies as a rabble-rousing, historical hellraiser!0