Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Armies fall and ‘Rise’

Gory and unrelenting, “300: Rise of an Empire” continues the saga of noble Greek warriors bent on repelling conquering invaders led by the “god-king” Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro).  It’s both a prequel and sequel, interestingly, to Zack Snyder’s 2006 opus, which is based on the Frank Miller graphic novel.

Directed by Noam Murro, “Rise of an Empire” quickly and brutally establishes itself as a worthy successor, its valiant protagonist Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) a suitable replacement, ably filling the void left by the fallen Spartan Leonidas (Gerard Butler). The Greek general rallies like-minded allies to fight Xerxes’ seafaring forces, enemies led by the blade-wielding assassin Artemisia, a vengeful and manipulative figure—albeit a sympathetic and tragic one.

The film, while understandably violent, often becomes excessive; one scene where a horse tramples a background character’s face is just unnecessary. As for other visual aspects, the sweeping fight scenes on land and sea are well-aided by stunts and digital trickery. Like the first film, this actioner employs striking, painterly hues; whether filtered or enhanced, there’s a general artificiality that works and connects to the controlled ambiance of the first “300.”

Artemisia is a scene-stealer, thanks to Eva Green, who plays yet another menacing villainess effortlessly, and quite devastatingly. Artemisia lures with unbridled fury and ferocity, a beautiful and unapologetic adversary that keeps the film lively.

Lena Headey returns and impresses as the steel-willed widow Queen Gorgo, narrating the tale with verve while preparing her own battalion for a pivotal encounter. Stapleton, meanwhile, engages as the brave new hero, who—while not as commanding as Leonidas, and delivers less memorable and inspiring pep talks—still makes an energetic and inspired debut.

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