Sullivan Stapleton as Themistocles
Eva Green as Artemisia
Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes
Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo
Jack O'Connell as Calisto
David Wenham as Dilios
Caitlin Carmichael as Young Artemisia - Age 8
Callan Mulvey as Scyllias
Hans Matheson as Aesyklos
Andrew Tiernan as Ephialtes
Ben Turner as General Artaphernes
Directed by Noam Murro
Years before King Leonidas led his 300 Spartan warriors against the unstoppable Persian army, a young Athenian warrior named Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) killed the Persian King Darius, leaving his son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and the commander of his fleet Artemisia (Eva Green) seeking revenge against Greece. Years later, as Xerxes' forces take on Leonidas' Spartans, Themistocles and Artemisia's fleets clash on the open seas trying to get an advantage in the ongoing war between empires.
It's been some time since Zack Snyder first got attention with his adaptation of Frank Miller's Greek war epic graphic novel "300." To some, waiting so long for any sort of follow-up might make it hard to capture the momentum of that film's groundbreaking visually-driven take on ancient history. For those who enjoyed that movie, it's not going to be hard to get into this ersatz prequel/sequel, because director Noam Murro along with his stunt and visual FX team have done a fine job recreating what worked so well in Snyder's movie without having the source material of a graphic novel to work from.
This time, it's the Athenians led by Sullivan Stapleton's Themistocles that step up to take on a much larger Persian fleet, but before we get into that, we're shown what happens immediately following the end of "300" with Lena Headey's Queen Gorgo filling us in via narration before we flashback to an earlier battle between Greece and Persia, at the time, under the leadership of King Darius.
"Rise of an Empire" is first and foremost about the visually-driven action set pieces, and from the very first sword battle, it's obvious that no one involved is trying to reinvent the wheel. Using much of the same sped-up action and slow motion that's become Snyder's signature, it's a brutal and violent movie, the amount of CG blood spray becoming intoxicating at times in the over-the-top way its used to enhance the violence and earn its R rating.
The actual origin of Xerxes and his transformation into a God isn't handled particularly well, taking place so quickly with little explanation how Rodrigo Santoro looks like himself, takes a dip into a pool then emerges a foot taller, shaved from head to toe and covered in gold ornaments. As it happens, Xerxes is barely in the movie, disappearing for a good section to take part in the previous film, so this can focus on the sea battle between Themistocles and Eva Green's Artemisia.
Stapleton does a decent job holding the film together similar to how Gerard Butler led the first movie, but the sexuality oozed by Eva Green as the deliciously evil Artemisia often overshadows Stapleton, especially in their scenes together. We eventually hear Artemisia's story and why a Greek woman might side with the Persians against her former people and that helps to solidify her character as one of those great movie villains that are so rare.
"300: Rise of an Empire" may have been better if Murro had a ready guidebook like a Frank Miller graphic novel to work from, but even without it, he finds a way to simulate the look and feel of Snyder's movie without making it feel as if it's a complete retread. What really sets Murro's film apart and makes it distinctive are the various sea battles, all beautifully choreographed and filmed, the action often slowed down to a point where you feel like you're gazing at a series of oil paintings in an art museum.
As beautiful as the movie looks, it's often dragged down by the amount of talking whether it's expositional dialogue, narration or someone giving a big speech to the troops, all which we've come to expect from this sort of big historical war epic. The timeline often gets confusing since it starts right after the events of "300," flashes back to the past, then sometime over the course of the movie, it's taking place concurrently with the previous movie. As much as the two movies overlap, by the end we're back to a point after the slaughter of Leonidas' 300 and it's not clear how much time has passed. At times, it's almost laughable how many times someone randomly references the Spartans in passing conversation, trying way too hard to remind people of the original movie. Xerxes eventually returns as does the hunchback from the first movie, and even Queen Gorgo gets into the action as they try to wrap things up and set up a third movie, but "Rise of an Empire" would probably have worked just fine as a standalone movie in the series without so many callbacks.
The Bottom Line:
If you're a fan of the original "300," there's enough in this odd "sidequel"--for the lack of a better term--to enjoy. It may try too hard to tie into the original movie and goes overboard with the exposition, but "Rise of an Empire" is an epic spectacle filled with fantastic visuals that ultimately works as a worthy follow-up.