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How do you make a sequel to a movie whose entire point is that nearly all of the main characters sacrificed their lives? In the case of 300: Rise of an Empire, sequel to Zack Snyder’s 2007 surprise hit 300, you come up with an entirely new cast of characters, inserting them into the in-between moments of the earlier story. While King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, seen only in clips from the first movie) and his Spartan army of 300 are busy nobly dying against the forces of Persian King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), Athenian leader Themistocles (bland Australian hunk Sullivan Stapleton) is fighting off the Persian invasion on another front, leading his city’s fleet of ships against the superior might of the Persian navy.
Santoro has a relatively small role, leaving the part of this movie’s villain to Eva Green as Persian naval commander Artemisia, and her performance is the sole bright spot. While the movie’s overall tone is excessive in a humorless, mind-numbing way, Green goes over the top with style, sneering through her lines while dressed like a goth/BDSM version of an ancient Persian. Her mid-film sex/fight scene with Themistocles is a bizarre highlight that Green carries entirely on her own.
Taking place concurrently with “300,” in which Spartans broke off from other Greeks to get massacred by Persians, this one finds the Persian navy being led by the deliciously diabolical Artemesia (Eva Green). She’s an ethnic Greek who, having been kidnapped and raped in battle, was raised by Persians to become a sword-wielding warrior, and rose to become the power behind the throne of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro).
Her opposite number, in a loincloth and blue cape, is Themistokles, the Greek freedom fighter who seeks to unite the various democratic states into one great anti-Persian fighting machine but is rebuffed by the surviving Spartan queen (Lena Headey). Sparta seems kind of like Texas: You wouldn’t want to fight a war without them, but they’d want to run everything their way and probably make you listen to country music, in which case maybe you’d rather just go ahead and die a beautiful death. Green rules the picture with her nutty stare and her willingness to get nasty in a hot sex scene, but the movie’s main weak point is the Greek general Themistokles.
He’s played by Sullivan Stapleton, a man not fit to wash Gerard Butler’s loincloth (just as Butler isn’t fit to carry Russell Crowe’s). With his pretty-boy eyes, he seems like the kind of guy you’d meet at the salad bar wearing a fisherman’s sweater. The lunatic blood lust you need in a mythic war hero isn’t there, nor in the eyes of any of his interchangeable brothers in arms.
Out-performing them all is the blood, thick as 10W-40, spewing in globs and blasts. It isn’t remotely disturbing, because it’s so stylized and comic book-ish. The gore in the PG-13 “Son of God,” which was meant to hurt and did, was far more disturbing. In “300: Rise of an Empire,” snicking the head off an underperforming officer in your navy seems like no more than routine disciplinary action. Tough love. Like Lou Gossett Jr. making Richard Gere do push-ups in the rain. Going to the trouble of cleaving a friend’s neck in twain is just another way of showing you care.
The rest of the movie is a lifeless imitation of Snyder’s style from the first movie, with Israeli commercials director Noam Murro taking over as director (Snyder remains on board as producer and co-writer). Murro uses the same digital sets, limited color palette, slow-motion action shots and geysers of CGI blood, but instead of coming off as a bold (if overbearing) new approach, it just ends up as a less exciting rehash of the earlier movie. So many scenes take place in the dark or under cloudy skies that it’s often difficult to make out the murky action (especially in 3D). It doesn’t help that the supporting characters are essentially interchangeable.
The repetitive, punishing action is matched by the ear-splitting score by Junkie XL, and it all becomes exhausting very quickly. With 300, Snyder found a creative new way to beat his audience into submission; Rise of an Empire pounds away without any such inspiration.