[Screen It]


(2014) (Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green) (R)

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Action: A Greek naval commander tries to rally his men to battle and ward off a Persian invasion to save their country.
It's 480 B.C. and Persian king Xerxes (RODRIGO SANTORO) is intent on ruling all lands but must contend with Spartan king Leonidas (GERARD BUTLER) and his small but formidable army of 300 men who battle the much larger Persian army on land. At the same time, Xerxes' naval commander, the Greek-born but now Greek-hating Artemisia (EVA GREEN), has plans to destroy the Greek fleet, something that doesn't sit well with Themistokles (SULLIVAN STAPLETON). He's the Greek leader who years earlier killed Xerxes' father-king in battle and thus indirectly caused the transformation of that warrior into the god-king he's now become.

While Themistokles can't convince Queen Gorgo (LENA HEADEY) of Sparta to commit forces to help them battle the Persians, he is able to assemble an array of farm hands, artists and such who now battle by his side. That includes the father-son duo of Scyllias (CALLAN MULVEY) and Calisto (JACK O'CONNELL). Outnumbered in terms of both ships and men, Themistokles nevertheless sails into battle against the ruthless Artemisia and her fleet, with the future of Greece hanging in the balance.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
I wasn't a big fan of "300," director Zack Snyder's hyper-stylized, homoerotic and beefcake-meets-bloodbath retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae back during the Persian Wars of the 400s B.C. For me, it was too much style and visual panache over substance and real characters. But I can certainly see the appeal to some viewers in turning Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's comic series into a comic book movie complete with comic book characters (and more 6-packs, of the ab variety, than in any exercise program) and gratuitous comic book style violence and bloodletting.

The one thing I appreciated, however, was that it had the guts to go ahead and perform a cardinal sin in terms of Hollywood moviemaking. And that was to kill off most of the entire cast, including Gerard Butler's buffed up, highly oiled and "let's go into battle and die with dignity" Spartan leader character. Granted, that was a little surprising considering the rest of the artistic license Snyder and co-writers Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon took with the historical material, but at least it insured this would just be a one-off type of offering.

Ha! Who am I kidding? Considering the nearly $500 million global box office take of the 2007 film, it's no surprise that the powers that be have managed to come up with "300: Rise of an Empire." Not really a sequel or prequel (although it has elements of both), it's more of a "meanwhile" or "at the same time" type of flick where the majority of what unfolds on the screen does so around the simultaneous setting of the first film.

Thus, while "300" took place on land as Butler's small forces took on the mighty army lead by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro who reprises role here), "Rise of an Empire" focuses on the naval element of the war. Namely, that would be Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) warring with Eva Green's uber femme fatale naval commander, Artemisia in several aquatic battles.

Fret not, fans of beheadings, dismemberments, and ancient weaponry piercing, slicing and hacking bodies in super slow-mo. And that's because new to the fold director Noam Murro has made sure there are plenty of close-quarter, hand to hand battles onboard those ships and elsewhere to appease that cinematic appetite for death and destruction. And with the addition of 3D this time around, the blood flies in all dimensions and even occasionally splatters the camera lens.

So, if you liked the original and its view of scantily clad, muscular men engaging in grisly and visceral mayhem against a surreal and sepia influenced backdrop with occasional moments of heterosexuality, you might just once again enjoy what's offered here. For yours truly, it's just more of the same old, same old (that even got spoofed a few years back in the awful parody "Meet the Spartans") that still takes itself far too seriously without fully accepting the campy romp it so desperately wants to be.

It also suffers in comparison to the original in terms of its lead. While Butler has had his share of movie misfires, he was pitch perfect in the original "300," sporting both the necessary look and on-screen, attitudinal dominance for such a part. Alas, Stapleton is a mere shadow and imitator of what Butler brought to the role, and while screenwriters Snyder and Kurt Johnstad (who've adapted Miller's reportedly never published work "Xerxes") give him his share of inspirational, rally the troops speeches, he fails to enthuse or engage the viewer and thus comes off as a lukewarm poseur. The same holds true for another father-son subplot that only feels like it's copying that very element from the original, albeit with a different fatal twist.

That said, for fans of over-the-top camp, Green -- decked out in a sort of formfitting outfit that would make Catwoman proud -- certainly delivers. She chews the scenery to such a degree that her character alone could have gnawed through and thus single-handedly sunk the entire Greek fleet. She's given a brief back-story to explain her modus operandi, but otherwise is in a constant state of pissed-off, murderous rage. That is, when she isn't seducing her chief foe in a scene that's so ludicrous, goofy and aggressively sexual that it's the funniest thing the film has to offer.

Alas, the filmmakers also take that far too seriously, but I guess the "Spartans" spoof left them with no alternative but to play it straight. While it's certainly never boring to watch (in terms of there always being something super-stylized playing out on the screen), the mayhem alone can't hold one's interest for long. And without much of an interesting story or engaging characters, "301" -- um -- "299" -- sorry, "300: Rise of an Empire" repeats the sins of its predecessor but with a less fun to watch lead. Accordingly, it rates as only a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed March 4, 2014 / Posted March 7, 2014

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