300: Rise of an Empire Action

Bloodthirsty Blu-ray Review: 300: Rise of an Empire

June 25, 2014Ben MK

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Glory and gore

By Ben Mk

It's easy to see the relationship between movies and comics. What are comics, after all, if not movies in storyboard form, just waiting to be realized for the silver screen? By that measure, Frank Miller is one hell of a storyboard artist, as his work has influenced the films of directors like Christopher Nolan, Robert Rodriguez and Zack Snyder. Snyder's 2007 epic, 300, was the brutal and beautiful realization of Miller's acclaimed graphic novel, and now director Noam Murro is doing the same for Miller's (yet-to-be-published) follow-up, Xerxes, with a film that's bigger and bloodier than its predecessor in every sense of the words.

Painting a broader picture of the Greco-Persian Wars, the 43-year-long conflict teased by Zack Snyder's original film, the bulk of Rise of an Empire's main storyline revolves around the Battle of Artemisium, which bloodied the waters off the Northern coast of Euboea, transpiring during the same three-day span as 300's Battle at Thermopylae. This time, instead of Spartan King Leonidas, another hero takes center stage: Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton).

Stapleton proves to be a charismatic action lead, and Themistokles proves to be a more pivotal character than Leonidas, for (as we learn in the film's opening scenes) it was he who sowed the seeds of the conflict with Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, reprising his role) ten years prior, at the Battle of Marathon. During that first Persian invasion, Themistokles marshaled the Athenians in defense against the forces led by Xerxes' father, King Darius. It was that decisive Greek victory — especially the fatal blow dealt to Darius — that stoked Xerxes' rage, setting the wheels in motion for his rebirth as a god-king intent on inflicting his revenge on all the peoples of Greece.

But despite the fleshing-out of Xerxes' origins, he isn't Rise of an Empire's principle antagonist. That honor goes to Artemisia (a brilliantly cast, sneering Eva Green), the sly and ruthless commander of the Persian naval fleet, who has her own reasons for wanting to see Greece burn. It's she who fans the flames of Xerxes' rage after Themistokles strikes down Darius, and she also has a hand in upholding the film's ever-increasing bodycount, by slashing, impaling and beheading all who oppose her.

Green's portrayal of Artemisia — who's infinitely more cunning and deadly than all of her male counterparts — solidifies the character's reputation as a formidable foe from her first few moments on-screen, but she isn't the only female counterpoint to the onslaught of testosterone that otherwise fuels the action. Lena Headey (better known these days as Cersei Lannister on HBO's Game of Thrones) reprises her role as Queen Gorgo, bringing her character's emotional arc from the first film to a more satisfying resolution, while also playing a more integral role in Rise of an Empire's action.

Gender politics aside, the screenplay by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad also treads lightly into the arena of actual politics, by touching sparingly on Themistokles' role as a politician and his attempts at realizing his vision for a unified Greece. Fortunately, they keep it to a minimum, restricting these elements to mere undercurrents that help lend an air of historical accuracy to the film, rather than expanding them into full-blown subplots. And that leaves ample room for the wall-to-wall, bloody, limb-severing action — which is just the way it should be for a film like this.

Warner debuts 300: Rise of an Empire on Blu-ray with a bold and breathtaking A/V presentation — one that brings out the stunning beauty in the film's hyperrealistic depictions of carnage and war. Aside from being drenched in the blood of vanquished warriors, cinematographer Simon Duggan's gorgeous, high-contrast color palette sees the image bathed in color, accentuating the deep reds and vibrant blues of the Spartan and Athenian cloaks, as well as the black and golden hues that signify the Persian empire. Detail is also exquisite, as can be observed in Xerxes' gold accoutrements or the swaying blades of wheat growing in the fields surrounding Sparta. But when the film shifts to ultra-slow-mo, it becomes doubly impressive: every arrow splintered in battle, every drop of blood shed and every raindrop that falls on the battlefield is captured with pinpoint sharpness. The disc's ferocious DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack serves as a worthy counterpart to the powerhouse visuals, rendering everything from the sound of swords swiping through the air to the innumerable battle cries with impressive gusto. But it's the thunderous, pulsating score by composer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) — which mixes a hard-rock edge with drums, horns and Middle-Eastern influences — that really helps this soundtrack raise the roof, especially his rousing end-credits remix of Black Sabbath's rock classic, 'War Pigs'.

Flanking the usual DVD and UltraViolet digital copies on Warner's Blu-ray release is an impressive army of supplemental features, running a total of 80 minutes. It begins with the four-part, 30-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, The 300 Effect, which is split into 3 Days in Hell, Brutal Artistry, A New Breed of Hero and Taking the Battle to the Sea. In it, cast and crew (including co-writer/producer Zack Snyder, co-writer Kurt Johnstad, director Noam Murro and stars Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green and Rodrigo Santoro) discuss the ways in which the storylines of Rise of an Empire and 300 dovetail with one another, the film's visual aesthetic, the character of Themistokles and the filming of the movie's watery action set pieces, with film clips and on-set footage peppered throughout.

This is followed by a trio of featurettes focusing on the real-life history behind the film, featuring interviews with the filmmakers and various history scholars, film clips and artist's renderings of the historical figures depicted in the movie. The first of these is the 23-minute Real Leaders & Legends, which provides a historical account of the Greco-Persian Wars and its decisive battles, comparing it with the film's portrayals. Next up is Women Warriors, a 12-minute look at the two main female characters, Artemisia and Queen Gorgo. And then there's the 11-minute Savage Warships, which provides some background on the Greek ship recreated for the film, the Trireme. Capping off the disc's special features is the 4-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, Becoming a Warrior, which touches on the intense physical training that the actors underwent in preparation for their roles.

With sequences that take place before, during and after the events of 300, 300: Rise of an Empire is so much more than your typical sequel. Not only does it feel like a natural evolution of the storytelling, seamlessly folding new characters into the mix while adding dimensionality to existing ones, it amps up the action, delivering scene after relentless scene of brutally visceral and gory sword-to-sword combat. Likewise, Warner's Blu-ray release refuses to surrender when it comes to its faultless A/V presentation. And combined with its fairly substantial array of special features — which sheds light on the making of the film, as well as the history behind it — that makes 300: Rise of an Empire on Blu-ray quite the decisive victory indeed.

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  ★★★★
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  ★★★★★
Special Features  —  ★★★½

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