Leonidas (Gerard Butler), now, he was a hero. Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), well, he’s a good strategist. And that is a very different thing cinematically, especially in an action movie, and even if the action is mostly a dumbed-down gorefest, such as 300: Rise of an Empire. This sequel to the enduring hit 300, about Sparta’s last stand at Thermopylae, has very little of the first film’s stirring jingoism, political intrigue, enriching folklore, or vivid supporting characters. And it doesn’t have a leader with the macho authority and volatile charisma of a Gerard Butler. In a better film, Stapleton’s lack of the right stuff (resonant voice, expressive features, magnetism) as the Athenian leader might be more noticeable, but amid the ceaseless carnage of Empire, his bland good looks almost suffice, especially since the dialogue is a string of clichés regarding fighting for freedom, and being willing to die for freedom, and being willing to die for the other guys fighting for freedom, and on and on.
The film opens with mélange of battle scenes, meant to intertwine the coming devastation with 300 while Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) brings the audience up to speed on the Second Persian Invasion by narrating an overly long and needlessly confusing prologue. Seems that while the 300 Spartans were engaged in one of the 10 Most Important Battles in World History, Themistokles was trying to unify the Greek city-states to defeat the Persian empire at sea, resulting in another legendary clash, the Battle of Salamis. By this time, it’s obvious that newbie director Noam Murro does not have the experience or innate talent for this kind of extravagant action, especially when compared to Zack Snyder’s career-high triumph with the original, which managed to bring flesh-and-blood import to 300’s then-radical CGI enhancements and stylistic approximation of a pulpy graphic novel.
And that’s another thing the sequel doesn’t have: An acclaimed graphic novel by Frank Miller to be adapted from (though reportedly the script was influenced by Miller’s unpublished prequel, Xerxes). Along with its testosterone-and-adrenaline fueled characters, Snyder’s adaptation of Miller’s story also had some substance, such as the conflict between stoicism and mysticism, which made it more than just a graphically grisly fight between a general-king and a god-king. Rise of an Empire has no such texturing, and though it’s not quite torture porn, it does come close to being a feature-length riff on mutilation fetishism, where a crow plucking out a corpse’s eyeball is as lovingly photographed as all the rippling digital musculature. Chopped-off heads are shot from several angles. Severed limbs squirting geysers of blood get tight close-ups. Arterial arcs of blood are shot in slow-motion, freeze-framed, then repeated in even closer close-up. During the climactic battle at sea, where Themistokles outmaneuvers Xerxes’ wily and fearless ally, Queen Artimisia (Eva Green), the director’s obsessive focus on bodily damage obscures the sequence’s potential for military ingenuity and suspense at sea.
As for Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who simultaneously is just finishing up the annihilation of Leonidas’ forces, he gets a backstory—submerging himself in a creepy lake and coming out a giant with an excessive fondness for bling—that makes him less menacing, not more, but he pretty much sits this one out anyway. And so, apparently, does Aesyklos (a miscast Hans Matheson), who mostly hangs about Themistokles looking concerned or bewildered. The heavy narrative lifting is left to the blood-lusty witch queen, whom Green imbues with a dangerous intelligence even while swaggering on deck in get-ups more suitable for a black-metal-band video vamp.
Suffice it to say that Xerxes does not get his comeuppance; the script robs the story of a denouement that would tie it into the previous film with a satisfying sense of justice deferred, and justice delivered. Instead, the filmmakers take it down by setting up for a third installment. One wonders how many thousands of gallons of fake blood the Aegean can hold.
On the upside, the Greeks become unified, and the undervalued Green (who went unnoticed as an evil queen in the poorly realized Starz series Camelot) is getting the recognition she deserves for stealing every scene.