300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE
** SPOILERS **
300: Rise of an Empire is a perfect Zack Snyder facsimile. Frame for frame matching and, via 3D, even eclipsing the virtuoso comic book panels on steroids, and bloodletting galore of 300 way back in 2007, you'd never know it's director Noam Murro and not Snyder astride the director's chair. Once more, the ancient world is depicted as a viscera-soaked decathelon of sweaty abs and pecs grunting, leaping, thrashing, and killing. Ancient Greeks and Persian monsters are so hot blooded, when you chop any part off with a sword, spear or arrow, blood bursts forth like geysers. Rise of an Empire is also a misnomer; while it briefly explains the origin of the golden briefs-wearing, golden god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), it's really more of a companion piece to 300, primarily depicting events happening during King Leonidas' valiant sacrifice against the Persian Army at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. and the aftermath. Not a traditional sequel and containing only a smidge of prequel; the studio might as well have called it During 300, While 300 Was Going On, or maybe 300: The Poseidon Adventure.
Narrated throughout by the returning Queen Golgo (Lena Headey), who doles out all of the necessary exposition as she essentially talks herself into taking up arms and leading the Spartans into the war to avenge her fallen husband Leonidas, Rise is mostly concerned with naval battles and a clash of wills (and loins) between the Athenian general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) and the Persian warrior woman Artemisia (Eva Green). Artemisia is Greek born but suffered horrible tragedy at the hands of Greek soldiers. She was saved and trained by the Persians to be a lethal warrior and rose to become a confidant of the late king Darius and now Xerxes. Turns out Artemisia is the most pivotal person of this time period of ancient history; it was she who manipulated events and murdered her way to enable Xerxes' ascension to become the god-king of Persia. And, like the movie itself, Artemisia is quick to ignore Xerxes and leave him to the sidelines to do whatever she wants. 300: Rise of an Empire is based on the Frank Miller graphic novel "Xerxes," but Xerxes is barely in the movie. And rightly so. You can't make a whole movie about Xerxes because that preening peacock isn't remotely interesting.
As Themistokles, Stapleton is a far less rousing replacement for Gerard Butler's Leonidas. Stapleton looks the part fine, but lacks the lion's roar and the glint of noble madness in his eyes. His Athenian warriors - all of whom have never heard of a shirt, much less a toga - love him all the same, though. Themistokles proves a brilliant naval strategist, masterminding novel ways to sink the endless fleet of Persia. For her part, Green commands like Zapp Brannigan of Futurama, slinking around her royal barge and sending wave after wave of her ships and slaves to their watery doom before growing annoyed and deciding using her feminine wiles and other ample body parts are the answer to the Greek problem. In Rise's best scene, a night of aggressive negotiations between Artemisia and Themistokles turns into a sexy smackdown of eight pack vs. 36Cs. And yet, no peace would come between these warring powers. Themistokles is too proud and devoted to his Greek freedom and democracy, or something, to submit to be the consort of the sexiest siren of the Aegean seas.
Unlike its predecessor, Rise of the Empire doesn't end so much as pause in the middle of battle, setting up a third 300 to continue the franchise. Rise is more unwieldy and lacks the lyricism of 300 (I can't believe I just used the word 'lyricism' to describe 300.) Rise does helpfully explain the difference between Spartans and Athenians: the Athenians wear blue capes and skirts, while the Spartans wear red capes and leather briefs. Mostly, Rise of the Empire is, happily, the Eva Green Show, a primal showcase for her talents. Artemisia is far and away the most (and only) interesting person in the movie. Green constantly remarks on how bored she is by the lickspittle Persian minions she's surrounded by. Unfortunately, the Athenians are no more compelling as characters or conversationalists. But boy, can they fight. "You fight better than you fuck," is Artemisia's assessment of her arch rival. That's what Themistokles' T-shirt would say, if he ever wore one.