This...is...not.....Sparta!!! Zack Snyder's 300 was an exercise in bare chests, rippling muscles (ladies, Michael Fassbender is half-naked the entire time), blood-letting, and staggering amounts of Spartan machismo. But underneath all of that and Snyder's glorious visual effects wizardry was a wildly fictionalized re-telling of one of history's most glorious battles, and a true example of brotherhood in the face of overwhelming odds. So there was more to it than many were willing to give it credit for, and apparently that extends to 300 creator Frank Miller, whose sequel 300: Rise of an Empire only seems to exist to bolster the CGI blood industry.
To be fair, the deck was stacked against this film much like the doomed Spartans at the hot gates of Thermopylae. With Snyder busy telling the mythological tales of Superman, the directing reins were handed over to Noam Murro, whose one time in the director's chair for the decidedly non-visual comedy, Smart People. An odd choice choosing Murro, and if anything it proves that some directors have an affinity for choreographing action, and some clearly don't. The blood flows in such a stagey, repetitive manner that it quickly becomes tiresome, and the only thing that saves the film at all is the outrageously wicked lead performance by Eva Green.
Green, who has always been a little bit scary despite her obvious beauty, combines both of those aspects with devastating efficiency as Artemisia, the fearsome naval commander to the Persian king, Xerxes (the returning Rodrigo Santoro). She's the most compelling character in a needlessly-confusing story that begins after the fall of the 300, and then jumps backwards to the battle of Marathon to introduce us to Greek hero Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton). So it's not a true sequel, but more of a side-quel taking place before, during, and then after King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, seen mostly in flashback) and his Spartan men fell. But you won't care about any of this, nor the high-minded rallying cries from Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who finds herself the unintended leader of Sparta and the key to uniting the Greek forces against Xerxes.
But the one you'll be rooting for, and possibly dressing up as for Halloween, is Artemisia. In a land full of brutish warrior-men she stands atop them all as the fiercest warrior, whose aggression with her twin-blades is only matched by her brutal love-making. In her leather-clad S&M gear she's brave enough to stand up against the might of Xerxes, who has been reborn as a god, and battle the men of Greece to a standstill. As Themistokles, Stapleton lacks commanding presence, and if only his personality was as defined as his stomach muscles. The prior film's epic, genre-breaking land battles have been replaced by lumbering naval warfare that consists of ships ramming into one another in slow motion, Murro's only visual flourish. The dialogue sounds like it was cribbed from episodes of Spartacus, but to be fair every sword 'n sandals flick sounds like that nowadays. Perhaps popping that in the Blu-Ray player would be preferable to this.
Miller, who developed the story Snyder and Kurt Johnstad wrote, seems to be chronicling the entire Persian invasion, and thus it makes sense for him to include the sea-faring battle of Salamis. It's just not an especially exciting story to be told cinematically, especially without all of the bells and whistles Snyder can provide. 300: Rise of an Empire doesn't quite bury the franchise under a pile of burning rubble, but there won't be any heroic odes sung about this forgettable sequel.