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Thursday, March 20, 2014 12:01 am

A rousing Rise of an Empire

Eva Green as Artemisia in 300: Rise of an Empire.
PHOTO COURTESY Warner Bros. Pictures

 

I was one of the few who wasn’t completely taken in by Zack Snyder’s 300. While the aesthetic he employed – digital backgrounds, bleeding colors and darkly accented characters that suggested a comic book on acid – was gripping, the story it was wrapped around seemed a bit too slight for me to take a rooting interest in King Leonidas and his doomed 300. Again, with a $210-million worldwide take at the box office I was obviously one of the few who jumped on the bandwagon.

With that much money having been pulled in, it’s surprising that Warner Brothers waited so long to capitalize on the film’s success. Yet, fans would have to wait seven years for the inevitable sequel to hit the big screen and for my money it was worth it. Director Noam Murro’s 300: Rise of an Empire follows in the steps of its predecessor with its highly stylized look, yet focuses on a more engaging tale, a naval battle between the Greek and Persian forces that takes place at the same time of King Leonidas’ courageous yet futile stand. There’s a greater sense of scope at play here, as well as characters that are far more dynamic than those in the first. That helps see the film through, even though it becomes repetitious before its bloody end.

Having gained legendary status for having killed King Darius (Igal Naor) at the Battle of Marathon a decade earlier, General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) faces an even greater challenge when he must lead the Greek Navy into battle against the Persian fleet. His foe is a worthy one. Spurred on by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who longs to avenge his father, King Darius, his forces are in the hands of Artemisia (Eva Green), a sadistic warrior who has no problem kissing the lips of men she’s just decapitated, a gesture of intimidation that keeps all the men in her command in check.

Employing repeated flashbacks in order to give us Themistocles, Xerxes and Artemisia’s back stories, the film wastes little time getting to the bloodletting. Warriors are impaled, eyes are gouged out, limbs are hacked off, men drown by the score and heads are crushed under horse’s hooves and all of it looks beautiful under Murro’s hand. Every wound gives way to a slow-motion splatter of blood in order to justify the use of 3-D technology and all of this takes place against a background of roiling, dark ominous clouds sometimes penetrated by the occasional piercing ray of sunlight. While the action is gruesome, there’s no question that it’s artistically impressive, the sort of project that contains scenes you’d want to freeze in order to study their visual composition when the film is released on home video. Like Dredd, this is the sort of film you end up admiring more than enjoying.

While Stapleton is a bit too bland to adequately fill out the hero’s role, Santoro commands the viewer’s attention as Xerxes, the mad demigod whose lust for vengeance clouds his better judgment. The actor’s crazed look and impressive physical demeanor makes for an imposing enemy worthy of the Greeks’ fear. However, Green steals every scene she’s in, obviously relishing the opportunity to play such a grand, irredeemable villain. Sexy, sultry and dangerous, the actress commands the screen and leaves little doubt that she enjoys dominating the men around her, conveying so much strength that you never question why the men in her vast armada say, “How high?” whenever she barks, “Jump!” Amidst all of the elaborate visual tricks at play, Green proves that nothing can overshadow a grand flesh-and-blood performance that can be writ larger than any artificial special effect.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org

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