Visual Fireworks Power Tepid "300" Follow-Up

“Forgettable.” It’s a word rarely communicated without a kind of passive aggressive sting, its negative undertones undercutting any possible feelings of contentment. As such, the word gets a bad rap. Many lesser works of art – music, film, literature, or otherwise – could only hope to be easily forgotten. “300: Rise Of An Empire” – a sequel that absolutely no one was pining for – is textbook in its wispiness, melting away the moment it reaches our senses. But it uses its triviality and lowered expectations to its advantage.

The film is a capable companion piece to Zack Snyder’s original “300” – a wildly overvalued yet undeniably charismatic sword-and-sandal epic – but more importantly, “Rise Of An Empire” is a functional, wondrously gory action pic that should please genre fans. It attempts to be nothing more, nor should it. To say that I was blindsided by its competence is faint praise, indeed, but it’s not the wreck anyone was expecting. In fact, its pleasures are very real.

Zack Snyder (credited as a co-writer here) has ceded directorial reins to virtual newcomer Noam Murro, and the transition is seamless. Snyder’s patented brand of slow-motion CGI trickery and heavy sepia tones are intact, but Murro’s visual acuity is all at once less on-the-nose and more eye-catching than his predecessor’s. For the first third of the film, the director effortlessly juggles exposition with a handful of gorgeous battle sequences, allowing momentum to swell and burst like the pic’s constant explosions of flesh and blood.

That’s not to say any of this is particularly innovative, but it’s certainly worthy of a massive screen and a ground-shaking sound system. Interestingly, “Rise Of An Empire” is half prequel, half sequel, at its best when functioning as an addendum to Snyder’s film. Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) is no friend of the Spartans, but they share a common enemy in the bloodthirsty Persians, led by the god-king, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), and femme fatale, Artemisia (Eva Green). Lena Headey returns as the Queen of the Spartans, while the soon to be deceased King Leonidas and his army of 300 are glimpsed mostly in flashback form.

The narrative thrust here – Themistokles leading his forces against the Persians, entirely removed from the Spartans – is anemic, but the visuals along with Green’s committed performance keep things moving – to a point. In its second act, the film catches up to the events of “300,” ultimately running concurrently to them. At this point, it’s clear we’re experiencing the b-side to Synder’s hit single. The result is a limp, overlong naval battle that moviegoers have seen a hundred times over. Only a wonderfully campy sex scene between our hero and villain registers during the pic’s midsection.

Perhaps the film’s biggest glitch is that Sullivan Stapleton is a void of charisma, failing to summon one-tenth of the charm of the admittedly limited Gerard Butler. Had Murro been fitted with an actor capable of matching Green, it might have been the spark to carry “Rise Of An Empire” to heights unseen by its overly dour antecedent. Instead, we have a blank canvas of a lead that can handle all the action that comes his way, but can’t sell any of the hackneyed dialogue that comes with the territory.

Fortunately, the finale is as visually spectacular as anyone could hope for. Unlike Snyder’s film, in which the heavy use of green screen was always apparent, the lines here are blurred – partially due to advancements in technology. And because of the highly stylized nature of the material, it’s nigh on impossible to tell where the CGI begins and ends, marking a victory for special effects in its war against computer-generated exhaustion.

Just by avoiding the haze of perfunctoriness that envelops so many sequels, “300: Rise Of An Empire” is a success. It won’t convert non-believers, but it’s enough to satisfy fans, even if it disappears as it fires across their synapses. No one wants to be “forgettable,” but is that not preferable to “a real chore to sit through” or “I want to claw my eyes out” or “I’ll never forgive you for making this film?” And in that light, you’re okay, “Rise Of An Empire.” You’re okay.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 7, 2014
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Noam Murro
Screenwriter: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad
Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro, Igal Naor, Callan Mulvey, Jack O’Connell, Andrew Tiernan
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language)