The first 300, director Zack Snyder’s 2006 take on the legendary showdown between Persians and Spartans at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., was all about the guys and their abs.
The sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, is more about the women. Specifically, seafaring Greek-born Persian warrior Artemisia, a figure who — if this movie is to be believed — ruled the ancient world through a combination of cunning, cruelty and the ability to look great while waging war on the high seas.
It’s Artemisia, played with a mixure of cool and camp by Eva Green ( Dark Shadows, Casino Royale), who gives this CGI-saturated sequel a jolt of energy, as her male Athenian adversaries are as flavorless as week-old hummus. If not for Artemisia, Empire would be just a retread of its predecessor.
Set at the same time as the first film, when a brave force of 300 men valiantly tried to hold off an invading Persian army led by Xerxes, Empire details the sea war between Artemisia and Greek leader Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton). He spends much of his time trying to unite the Greek city-states to thwart the threat. He even travels to Sparta to try to convince Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey, reprising her role from the first film) to help him, but she wants to handle things on her own.
Themistokles turns out to be a tough, smart warrior. While the Greeks lack the Persians’ sheer force of numbers, they make up for it in cleverness. So, when it’s Artemesia-vs.-Themistokles crunch time, it’s classic David and Goliath stuff (though, unlike here, Goliath didn’t try to seduce David, ending up with one of the most bizarre sex scenes in an action movie ever).
Directed by Israeli commercials director Noam Murro and produced by Snyder, Empire has the same heavily stylized, blood-splattered comic-book visuals as the first film. (Like 300, Empire is based on a Frank Miller graphic novel.) The battle scenes are well-staged, even if the 3-D is totally unnecessary. ( Gravity this isn’t.)
As written by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, Empire is unfortunately low on tongue-in-cheek, sword-and-sandal humor, though there is a brief shout-out to the Spartacus TV series: Peter Mensah, who oversaw the gladiator school in that show, is seen here as Artemisia’s combat trainer when she was a young girl cutting her teeth on the hatred of all things Greek. (We learn that though she is Greek herself, she loathes them because her family and neighbors were slaughtered by other Greeks.)
Stapleton, the Australian actor who brought an intensity to his portrayal of a thug in Animal Kingdom, acquits himself well in his first big starring role — he gets to bellow and exhort his followers to battle with the best of them. But there’s nothing particularly unique about him here, and the same is true for most of his crew. It’s up to the Persians — Artemisia and the evil golden-boy Xerxes (once again played by Rodrigo Santoro) as well as their horrible horde of minions — to give Empire what bite it has.
Artemisia may ultimately have lost the war in this clash of civilizations, but she wins our hearts.