‘Show them we chose to die on our feet rather than live on our knees!’ bellows – no, not Gerard Butler – but Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton, taking lead role duties in 300: Rise of an Empire, a prequel-of-sorts to Zack Snyder’s 2006 mammoth cult hit, 300. Whilst the original focused on King Leonidas, his army of 300 Spartans and their part in the Battle of Thermopylae, the action here is transported to the seas with Stapleton starring as Themistocles, a Greek general who must lead a fleet against Persian forces.
Stapleton – spotted in Animal Kingdom (2010) and The Hunter (2011) before making movements to Hollywood in Gangster Squad (2013) – makes an attempt to carve out a character amid the hordes of oiled-up extras befit with rippling torsos, but is met with fiercer opposition than simply the viewing audience; in Eva Green, we have the villainess of the piece, Artemsia – the vengeful, soulless leader of the Persian navy, a screen presence who quenches audiences’ thirst for blood more readily than most. Teasing unpredictability with every movement, Rise of an Empire struggles to meet her standards.
Expanding upon the universe introduced by Snyder, director Noam Murro takes time to flesh out backstory (using Frank Miller’s unpublished graphic novel Xerxes as a basis) before ditching the prequel formula around the quarter-way mark, the remainder of the action running parallel to that of 300. Time enough for a strand or two about how Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) became the God-King we remember him to be, or how Themistocles sought the aid of the Spartans via Lena Headey’s returning yet criminally underused Queen Gorgo; if Butler’s presence is missed, it’s her shortage of presence that is felt.
Despite the unprecedented success of 300, some naysayers criticised the visuals and now with added 3D, the sense is heightened that somewhere nearby lurks a kid clutching a Playstation controller – for a film largely dependent on these impressive visuals to dazzle, it’s unfortunate the universe remains a strangely un-involving vessel.
But there is no denying the film zips along at one hell of a pace with the well choreographed action only dulling towards the end as the tempo-manipulation begins to irk (slow-mo conveniently deployed as weapon meets flesh, blood shooting out towards the screen by the bucketful). It’s during these scenes that the obscured positives float freely to the surface: a pulsating soundtrack from Dutch composer Junkie XL ticks many right boxes, not to mention the impressive mixing of said score with the sound of sword-slicing; a memorable turn from rising star Jack O’Connell (of Skins fame), as young Greek warrior Calisto, counters the more outlandish moments – the success of which solely relies on Eva Green, simply put, giving it hell.
…and yet, for a film depicting the Rise of an Empire, it all feels familiarly one-note.