Following the valiant sacrifice of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his three-hundred Spartan warriors, Athenian admiral Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) takes up the sword defending ancient Greece against the terrible Persian empire. In battle Themistocles slings a spear slaying the Persian king, Darius (Igal Naor), but only spurs his son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) on to vengeance. Aided by formidable stepsister Artemisia (Eva Green) Xerxes undergoes a mystical process transforming himself into a chrome-domed golden god in glistening S&M gear. With Artemisia in command the vast Persian armada threatens to obliterate all Greece, driving Themistocles to unite its diverse kingdoms including, yes Sparta, to defend their cherished ideal of freedom Much bloodletting, bonking and bare-chested bellowing ensues.
Adapted from the acclaimed graphic novel by Frank Miller, the original 300 (2007) was a colossal international hit even though it sharply divided audiences and critics. Some derided the film as a ludicrously overblown, though no less offensive, crypto-fascist tract guilty of racism, homophobia and misogyny. Others applauded Miller and "visionary" director Zach Snyder for finally steering the fantasy genre away from the family-friendly antics of Harry Potter back to the "good old days" of blood, guts, sex and sorcery found in Conan the Barbarian (1982), but with layers of mature political discourse paving the way for TV smash Game of Thrones. Basically, 300 brought back the noble arts of rape and dismemberment in sword and sorcery fare. Funny how a darker sensibility excuses all ills in the eyes of so many fan boys. Nevertheless, even respected critics like Richard Roeper proclaimed Snyder's film "the Citizen Kane of graphic novel adaptations." To be honest both the criticisms and praise were overblown but then so was the movie.
In the wake of 300's blockbusting success Miller produced a second graphic novel that functioned as both sequel and prequel depicting events simultaneously prefiguring, concurrent to and following the aftermath of the first story. Zach Snyder was originally attached to direct but with his attention diverted by Man of Steel (2012) opted to produce and pen the screenplay instead, handing the reigns to Noam Murro, the Israeli born filmmaker whose previous film, low-key comedy drama Smart People (2008) is about as far removed from this as you can get. Fans need not worry, 300: Rise of an Empire is still very much in the style of Snyder utilizing the same super-imposition chroma-key technique used to replicate Miller's comic book visuals. There is plenty of bloodshed and bare bodies (both male and female) with a whole lot of 3D CGI entrails slung at the screen. Smarting from accusations of promoting fascism with the last movie, Snyder and Miller switch focus away from the ethically dubious Spartans onto Athens, repeatedly stressing that these warriors a willing to die for "an Athenian experiment called democracy." Unlike Leonidas, Themistocles laments each sacrifice and believes in something nobler than the glory of battle. Yet no matter how romanticized, Miller's central argument that civilization is forged by military might while kings and power-brokers reap the benefits, retains uncomfortable undertones and the film's sociopolitical slogans remain one-dimensional.
Australian lead Sullivan Stapleton, who first drew attention with a role in Oscar-nominated crime drama Animal Kingdom (2010), lacks gravitas and while returning players Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro, David Wenham, Andrew Tiernan, Andrew Pleavin and Peter Mensah inhabit their roles capably, the supporting players are shockingly atrocious. Some appear incapable of a single convincing line reading. Plus who knew so many cockney bruisers were knocking around ancient Persia. Rising star Jack O'Connell had a better showcase in British prison drama Starred Up (2014). Interestingly in the midst of so many shirtless, shouting macho men the real star turns come from women. Lena Headey remains a formidable presence as Queen Gorgo, driving events with eloquent narration while Eva Green steals the entire movie with serpentine grace hissing her lines with relishable venom. Whether kissing a severed head, twirling twin swords in battle or none too subtly trying to seduce Themistocles culminating in a hilarious sex-as-violence scene, she is great fun to watch and subsequently signed up for another Miller adaptation: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). The film's mix of mythology with history retains a certain frisson absent in boringly sober epics like Troy (2004) but though its Sturm und Drang proves undeniably arresting it is also wearying. Stellar production values elevate this high above numerous DTV pretenders - check out Vikingdom (2013) for an example of the kind of trashy B-movie 300 inspired - both plotting and dialogue prove just as perfunctory. It is basically one great big endless battle with an annoyingly inconclusive finale.