Who would have thought that one of the year's most interesting statements on feminism and sexuality would come from a film that is marketed so aggressively toward male audiences? 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE, the second film in the 300 graphic novel adaptation series, may focus on the brawny Greek and Persian battles of the 480–479 BC era, but it also presents a kickass group of complex women characters whose sexual prowess is as mighty as their swords.
Within the first few minutes of the film, director Noam Murro, with the help of screenwriters Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, lure you into a highly graphic and jaw-droppingly choreographed view of Greek History under the second Persian invasion of Greece, led by Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) and Persia's mortal-turned-god Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). But it is the story of Artemesia (Eva Green), the child war victim-turned-warrior princess (and Xerxes' ally) who provides the film's most stirring portrayal. What is perhaps most interesting about her tragic backstory as a young Greek who was captured and tortured after her family was killed in the wars, is that we learn it not from her but from Themistokles as he prepares his troops for the ammunition they face. In doing so, Artemesia is presented as a malevolent commander of the Persian navy whose actions are also qualified by her entitled search for revenge.
It's a delicate line on which to tap dance, but Green pulls it off awesomely. You want to hate her, but she's just too fun to watch. You want to love her but she's too focus on her thirst for blood to give her a chance. Though she is power-drenched, allowing no room for inadequacies performed by her menial troops before she slits their throats, she must still answer to Xerxes, who refuses to get his hands dirty on the battlefield as he watches the action from a pillar up above. Dipped head to toe in gold and donning shimmery jewelry, it is worth nothing that the one of the very few times he exerts violence is when he lashes out at at a leather-clad Artemesia for insubordination, serving as a reminder of their gender roles and royal positions even if she is in fact the face of Persia.
What is also interesting about Artemesia is that while she is an undoubtedly gifted fighter, facing off against countless Greek soldiers (sometimes on her own), she also embraces her femininity and uses her sexuality as an added weapon against Themistokles. Though it doesn't quite go according to plan, he is obviously unable to ignore her at her devious attempt at foreplay. As a result, the pair find a new way to spar that is neither romantic nor savage that furthered leveled the playing field between the two equitable leaders.
Another terrific woman character, Queen Gorgo of Greece (Lena Headey), is integral to the plot as the wife of Scyllias (Callan Mulvey). While we don't see much of her, except during scenes when Themistokles pleads with her to let him borrow her army, Headey makes the most of her more limited screen time with an authoritative performance that is capped off by a memorable ending.
While there are moments in the film that are marked with genuine emotion mostly delivered by Mulvey (who is impressive as Themistokles' right hand man), it is the two unsung female heroes who steal each scene they're in. Among the sea of male faces scattered along a sandy-red screen, both Headey and Green hold their own amid the chaos. 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is an ambitious production that never falters in pace, and it is a captivating speculative entry in the 300 franchise.
300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is in theaters everywhere Friday.
Rating: B+ (***1/2 out of *****)