Few recent tentpoles have lent themselves less naturally to a sequel than Zack Snyder’s “300,” a movie in which nearly all the major characters died, while a brief coda showed a unified Greek army about to lay waste to the remnants of Persia. But Snyder and co-writer Kurt Johnstad handily surmount that problem in “300: Rise of an Empire,” which offers a “meanwhile, back in Athens” story to complement the Spartan narrative of the first film, along with an even higher quotient of impaled torsos, severed limbs and rippling Mediterranean musculature. Anchored by Eva Green’s fearsome performance as a Persian naval commander whose vengeful bloodlust makes glowering King Xerxes seem a mere poseur, this highly entertaining time-filler lacks the mythic resonances that made “300” feel like an instant classic, but works surprisingly well on its own terms. Arriving in theaters on the box office fumes of “The Legend of Hercules” and “Pompeii,” it should prove to be the ancient epic auds have been waiting for.
If “300” was largely a boys-only affair, “Rise of an Empire” very much belongs to the women — specifically one woman named Artemisia (Green), who sports a warrior’s stoic countenance and the blazing azure stare of a femme very fatale. As a young girl, we learn, the Greek-born Artemisia watched helplessly as her entire village (including her parents) was slaughtered by other invading Greeks, earning her a healthy distrust of her own people. Spared but sold into slavery, she was rescued by the Persian King Darius (Igal Naor), father of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who raised her as a kind of surrogate daughter and stoked her warrior ethos. And while Xerxes battles things out with the good King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, seen in recycled footage from the first film) on land, it is Artemisia who leads Persia’s charge against Greece by sea.
She’s a ferocious presence, but well matched by Sparta’s own Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey, reprising her “300” role), who has less screen time but also serves as the movie’s narrator, holding forth on the long and bloody backstory of the Greco-Persian wars as she guides a warship toward a looming battle. (Both “300” films have made effective use of a slightly formal, literary voiceover to evoke the oral tradition of Greek epic poetry.) Fittingly regal and stern, Gorgo recounts the first clash of these two great armies, a decade earlier at the town of Marathon, which plays out in flashback as the first of the movie’s extravagant battle scenes. The outnumbered Greeks engage the weary Persians before they have even managed to row their boats ashore, while the valiant Gen. Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) hurls the fateful spear that deals King Darius a mortal blow. We learn, too, of the strange dark magic by which Xerxes evolved from his once-human form into his more familiar appearance: that of an 8-foot-tall Grace Jones after a rough night at a piercing parlor.
All this is neatly dispensed in the first 30 minutes or so, leaving the rest of the running time for the kind of elaborately choreographed combat that was “300’s” stock-in-trade, here with the violent storm waters of Aegean substituted for the narrow mountain passes of Thermopylae. Though Snyder has stayed on as writer and producer, “Rise of an Empire” was directed by Noam Murro, a veteran commercials director whose lone previous feature, the 2008 Dennis Quaid dramedy “Smart People,” offered no indication that he could handle a project of this size and scale. But Murro acquits himself more than well, borrowing a lot from Snyder’s playbook while managing to find his own way through the material.
Working with Australian d.p. Simon Duggan (“The Great Gatsby”), Murro re-creates the previous film’s distinctive, duochromatic palate (ochre for day, deep-blue for night), with the actors again performing against mostly digital sets — a look that may not be to the tastes of some analog cinema purists, but which comes as close as any movies have to a cinematic equivalent for the vibrant, active panels of the comicbook artist Frank Miller (whose work inspired both “300” films). Murro favors a somewhat faster, messier look than the first “300,” with a constantly tracking, swooping camera in lieu of Snyder’s more fixed, meticulously composed tableaux, and a minimum of the super slow-motion that gave “300’s” battle scenes their dreamy, ethereal air. And when it comes to blood, of which there will be plenty, Murro’s is darker, thicker and gloppier than Snyder’s bright-red pointillist splays.
“Rise of an Empire” never quite shakes the sense that we’re watching an undercard bout while Leonidas is off fighting for the title, and how could it not? Under Themistokles’ command, these Athenians are an altogether more civilized lot than their neighbors to the south, lacking the suicidal fire in their bellies that drove the Spartans to seek their so-called “beautiful deaths.” These farmers, poets and artists — heck, even Aeschylus himself (Hans Matheson) is among them — go more reluctantly to war, and Themistokles himself cuts a less iconic figure than mighty Leonidas. But when push comes to shove, they rise to the occasion, and the movie’s long, impressively sustained central naval engagement (modeled on the real-life Battle of Artemisium) is as exciting for its large-scale clashes of military might as for its minutiae of Greco-Persian battle strategy.
The images are duly spectacular, as Murro’s camera swoops and dives from every conceivable direction: Greek ships charging the Persian armada like so battering rams; mighty wooden vessels reduced to splinters by the jutting rocks of a narrow strait; nautical and human debris swiftly subsumed by the churning tempest. Yet not a bit of it is as startling as even a fleeting glimpse of Artemisia’s icily intent stare. Elsewhere, Murro and the writers fold in some compelling side business: As in “300,” there’s a focus on a pair of father and son soldiers, Scyllias and Calisto, the latter played with appealing humility by the rising young star Jack O’Connell (fresh off his bracing star turn in the IRA drama “71,” and soon to be back at sea in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken”).
Three visual effects houses and two vfxsupervisors share credit for the movie’s seamless integration of the real and the virtual. Also making a major contribution: the Dutch electronica composer Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, whose throbbing, muscular score seems to be echoing forth from some distant place in the cosmos.