Back in 2007, Zack Snyder's "300" came out and pretty much blew everyone's minds.
Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, just like 2005's similarly stylized "Sin City," the film told the story of the ancient Spartans, led by Gerard Butler's King Leonidas, who, with an army of just 300, went up against the considerable military might of the golden god king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). The film was gorgeous and gory -- a blood-splattered living comic book that favored balls-to-the-walls coolness over characterization or plot cohesiveness.
Now, a cool seven years later, a sequel has arisen in the form of "300: Rise of an Empire," based again on a Frank Miller comic book, although one that, at the time of this writing, has gone unpublished. This time, the movie centers on Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), who led the Athenian army against a similar (but much more water-logged) battle against Xerxes (again played by Santoro). But is it more of the same, or does it push the envelope in exciting new directions? Read on to find out.
1. It's Only Sort Of a Sequel...
While this movie is being sold as a sequel, it's more rightly described as a sideways-quel, as early marketing material suggested (before saner heads prevailed and they stopped talking about the whole sideways-quel thing). Much of the movie can be described as the cinematic equivalent of the comic book identifier "Meanwhile...," with the main action happening at the same time as the events of "300." The last act of the movie is the only part of the story that happens after what went on in "300," with a messenger basically saying "BTW Leonidas was killed." Sad times!
2. ...But You Will See Some Familiar Faces
While you don't get much in the way of sequel-ness in "300: Rise of an Empire" (there's even some stuff set before the events of "300"), you will see some familiar faces. Lena Headey's Queen Gorgo has a sizable supporting role, as does David Wenham's Dilios, one of the few surviving members of that 300-strong Spartan army (and the first film's erstwhile narrator) and, who knows, maybe there are some other characters from the first movie that make a return appearance, I'm not entirely sure (seven years is a long time). There is even some new stuff with Butler, although it's pretty brief.
3. The Leading Man Might as Well Be Computer Generated
For some reason, the filmmakers decided to cast Sullivan Stapleton, who looks much like someone who could have been cast as the lead Starz "Spartacus" series but, in this movie, has about as much charisma as the keyboard I'm currently typing on. It's strange, because Stapleton, an Australian actor, has been interesting before, starring in the wonderful crime drama "Animal Kingdom" and Willem Dafoe's brilliant, bizarre thriller "The Hunter" (he also had a supporting turn in "Gangster Squad"). But here he is sapped of anything even remotely engaging or virtuous. He's handsome, for sure, with abs that, when speckled with saltwater, shine like stacked crystals. But he doesn't have the commanding presence of Butler or Michael Fassbender (who costarred in the original) or anyone else, really. He just sort of takes up space on screen, without giving you something to really care about. It's a shame, too, because it could have been the kind of role that made somebody a star, much like Butler.
4. There's Less Mysticism
One of the fun things about the original was how it blended fantasy and reality. It was, ostensibly, a historically based film, although it was also overstuffed with weird ass mysticism. Some of the more memorable aspects of the movie revolved around this stuff: the seers who possessed a young nude girl with dark spirits, the turncoat hunchback who sold out the Spartans, and the general air that the spirit world and physical world didn't rest side-by-side but were braided into one another. Sadly, almost all of that mysticism is gone in the sequel, although there is a killer moment when we get to see some crazy sea serpents, that's really pretty cool.
5. Zack Snyder Doesn't Direct This One, But You Can Still Feel His Presence
Original director Zack Snyder didn't direct "300: Rise of an Empire," mostly because he was busy rebooting the Superman mythos with last summer's tragedy-tinged "Man of Steel." But Snyder's presence can be felt, for sure, as the film's co-writer and producer, in the overabundant use of slow motion, in the CGI backgrounds and creatures, and in the way that everything is stylized to an almost painterly degree. The technology has evolved somewhat in the last seven years, and Snyder and new director Noam Murro have used those advancements to make everything even lusher and more surreal.
6. The 3D Is Really Interesting
If there's one breakthrough in "300: Rise of an Empire," it's the way that the 3D is used. Traditionally, things would jut out into the audience in bold, explosive ways. The way that these moments are delivered to an audience are pure and unadorned, with very little standing in the way of the object that is jutting and the audience itself. What Murro and Snyder do in "300: Rise of an Empire" is create dimensionality in between the "camera" and the objects -- there's always a level of diffused something. Fog fills the screen, rain dapples the imaginary camera lens, blood gushes and fire burns. 3D is usually utilized for big moments, but with "300: Rise of an Empire," it's primary function is for atmosphere. And that's pretty cool.
7. Eva Green Steals the Show
More special than any special effect in "300: Rise of an Empire," however, is Eva Green's performance as Artemisia, a Grecian woman who wound up fighting for Persia. She is evil. Deliciously so. And she gets to purr lines like, "You fight much better than you f*ck." Everything about her is amazing -- her eye make-up, her costumes, her, um, assets. She relishes the role in a way that no one else in "300: Rise of an Empire" does (OK, maybe Santoro) and she occasionally seems like she's been beamed in from another, much more fun movie altogether. Most of the time, when Eva Green isn't on screen, you'll just be wondering where she is and waiting for her return. She is absolutely the best part of this movie.
8.) There's Tons of Weird Sex Stuff
And while we're on the subject of Green, there is a whole lot of weird sex stuff in "300: Rise of an Empire." While the first film traded almost exclusively on hushed homoeroticism, this new "300" introduces ideas about bondage and S&M. There's a prolonged discussion about "submission" and one of the best sex scenes in a while. "50 Shades of Grey" might be a year away, but those looking for the rough stuff might be inclined to check out this bloated blockbuster.
9. Iranians Still Probably Aren't Going to Be Pleased
Modern day Iranians, the descendants of Persians, weren't too pleased with their representation as raping, murdering, thieving decadents in the first "300." They might not be too pleased with the sequel, either. We actually get to see how King Xerxes became the golden god king, and it isn't too pleasant. Plus, the Persians are again shown as the robbing, pillaging, raping type. They do have a lot of cool animals at their disposal, though, which is neat. Although cool animals will probably not mask the cultural offensiveness of the movie.
10. Stay for the Credits
While the movie's score, composed by British electronic artist Junkie XL is impressively loud (seriously: at one point I just thought, Shit that's loud), the best musical moment of the whole movie happens over the closing credits. It's a trumped up version of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," accompanied by graphic novel-style visuals. It's the last bit of kick-ass fun for a movie almost exclusively devoted to kick-ass fun. And it rocks.
"300: Rise of an Empire" invades theaters March 7.
[Photo courtesy Warner Bros.]