The war was far from over after Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, "300," "Che") and his forces slaughtered 300 Spartans in Thermopylae. The Athenian general, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton, "Animal Kingdom"), who had inadvertently helped create Xerxes when he killed Xerxes's father King Darius at Marathon, believes a unified Greece is necessary to defeat Persian Navy Commander Artemisia (Eva Green, "Casino Royale") on the Aegean Sea in "300: Rise of an Empire."
This 'para-quel' to Zack Snyder's (who cowrote with "300" partner Kurt Johnstad) visualization of the Frank Miller graphic novel may lack the element of the new, but "Smart People" director Noam Murro stays the course on the choppy seas. Maintaining Snyder's palette along with also-new-to-the-franchise cinematographer Simon Duggan (2013's "The Great Gatsby"), Murro highlights three naval strategies engineered by Themistocles which win the admiration of the fierce Artemisia.
Murro's bottled lightning with his female star, Green, whose brutal punk vamp is the best reason to see the film. Striding about in costume designer Alexandra Byrne's ("Elizabeth," "The Avengers") heavy metal S&M wear, Green takes no prisoners as the Greek-by-birth warrior out for vengeance against her own people. She slithers and slaughters with such conviction she never crosses the line into camp (just watch her deep tongue a foe she's just decapitated!). We learn it was Artemisia who sent the inconsolable Xerxes to the evil place which rebirthed him as the God-King (their codependently manipulative relationship is twisted), and, after seeing her mighty navy defeated in its first strike against Themistocles's diminished fleet, she's determined to have him as her own.
If only Green had been given a worthy counterpart. Stapleton never convinces as the canny, political Themistocles, instead looking like your neighbor flipping burgers in his back yard. The aesthetic of these films has always been modern edge period, but Stapleton and his neck beard are just too current. His character's actions, however, first appealing for the freshly widowed Queen Gorgo's (Lena Headey, "300") support, then, defeated, rallying his ragtag band of free men, mostly farmers and poets (all, of course, with digitally shadowed six-pack abs), keep the timeline moving forward as Artemisia's flashes back until the two meet in the middle.
Even if it's evident we're watching a virtual world, the three sea set pieces are well mounted, Themistocles's smaller vessels catching the mightier Persians with a two-sided ramming attack. His second ploy is more deceitful, delighting his enemy so much, she sends a messenger to fetch him, a summons to seduction. Murro occasionally reminds us that Xerxes is still in play, but now that we've seen the God-king's genesis, the towering, glint-skinned king casts a different, strangely less menacing shadow.
But while much of the action is thrilling (a nightmare featuring sea serpents is another highlight), Murro overemphasizes splatter, in one instance using a 'glass' ship deck the better to appreciate pooling blood. Eyeballs are bulls' eyes for spears and plucked out of the dead by crows. In one scene the lopping of limbs recalls Monty Python's Black Knight. The brightness of the blood against desaturated color is cartoonish, much like the sunny side up eye of traitorous hunchback Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan, "300").
Much like "300's" Leonidas, Themistocles doesn't really stand a chance but he receives a third act surprise. Artemisia's forces meet their eventual match in another woman who looks chic while brandishing a mean sword. If "300" was testosterone driven, "Rise of an Empire" proves the old adage about the woman behind the throne.
Robin did not see this film.
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