Published Mar 06, 2014Armed with many more slow-motion shots of blood spurting from gaping wounds and another story of an outnumbered group of soldiers facing down overwhelming odds, 300: The Rise of an Empire can't help but become a lesser retread of the original. Still, it's fairly impressive as far as hollow spectacles go, transplanting the grand scope of the muddied battlefield from the land to the rolling waters of the sea.
Our hero this time around is Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), a leader of the Greek Navy who became somewhat of a legend after firing an arrow from a great distance to slay the Persian King, Darius (Igal Naor). We are treated then to a disappointing expansion on the back-story of Darius's son, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), our villain from the first film, which is basically that he wandered into a cave in the desert after his father died and emerged a god.
To command his formidable navy and contend with the unremarkable fleet helmed by Themistokles, Xerxes has appointed Artemisia (Eva Green), a dangerous and sexy woman who was born a Greek before horrific events altered her allegiances. The plot hinges on a series of escalating battles between the two sides that are often happening concurrently with events of the first film, as warring ships ram each other and swords are drawn.
While relative unknown Stapleton's commanding presence offers little more than a slight variation on Gerard Butler's Leonidas, it's Green who emerges as the real highlight by sinking her teeth into her bloodthirsty character and taking great delight in chewing the scenery. A meeting that Artemisia calls with Themistokles in an attempt to test his devotion leads to a powerful sex scene, as Green turns the act into equal parts titillation and white-hot anger.
Rise of an Empire works best when flesh is being torn and bodies are being tossed aside, but it struggles when trying to wring any real personality out of the combatants on the Greek side. A father and son storyline is merely perfunctory, and for all of the flowery language in the inspirational speeches delivered by Themistokles, it rarely amounts to anything beyond empty platitudes. The returning Lena Headey, serving as narrator and appearing in a reduced role, manages to make more of an impression than any of the interchangeable bearded men supporting Themistokles.
Still, it's hard not to fall under the spell of some of the more elaborate action sequences. There's one long unbroken shot following Themistokles during the climactic battle as he stalks the deck of a ship slaying foes while walking through fire and becoming submerged in water that, while obviously largely the product of digital manipulation, remains a uniquely exciting achievement.