But the story proper is one that’s very similar to its predecessor, albeit wetter. Sullivan Stapleton plays Themistokles, a Greek general who finds himself on a collision course with the Persians. However, where the Spartans of the first film were isolationists whose only motivation was self-preservation, Themistokles is fighting for a united Greece, his intention to spread the new Athenian concept of democracy.
And where the numerous battles of the first film happened on land, Rise of an Empire largely takes place at sea, with Themistokles’ 50 boats going head-to-head with thousands of monstrous Persian ships. But the challenge is even greater this time around, as his army isn’t made up of Spartan warriors, but rather boys, farm-hands, tradesmen and poets.
His opponent in these water wars is Artemesia, by far the film’s most interesting character. Commander of the Persian navy, she’s ruthless, quick-tempered, and at times blinded by vengeance. Which is a recurring theme in the movie, with most of the characters driven by revenge of one kind or other.
Eva Green – clad in black with bosom heaving – absolutely owns the role, the Casino Royale star chewing the scenery as this literal green-eyed monster; a femme fatale who dominates the men in her charge and pulls Xerxes’ strings like a gothic Lady Macbeth.
Unfortunately the majority of the male characters are one-dimensional, blending into one another and defined more by their washboard stomachs than anything more substantial.
Sullivan Stapleton is similarly somewhat bland as the heroic Themistokles, and at times it feels like he’s doing an impression of Gerard Butler’s Leonidas from the first film, just not a very good one. There’s some interesting material involving the character’s guilt over his involvement in the starting of the war, and his regret at sending so many young men to early graves, but he doesn’t really have the acting chops to carry it off. In fact, he’s effortlessly out-acted by Lena Heady, who returns as the Spartan Queen Gorgo, and delivers some of the film’s best lines, as well as a few of its most ridiculous.
But a 300 movie isn’t about clever dialogue and cultured performances, but rather large, loud spectacle, and Rise of an Empire delivers throughout. It's a relief, as helmer Noam Murro’s only previous credit is romantic comedy Smart People, making him an unusual choice for the director’s chair. Thankfully, he turns Rise of an Empire into the most spectacular film of the year thus far, with stand-out sequences including a fiery sea battle that makes the jaw drop, and a slow-motion fight involving father and son that has to be seen to be believed. Indeed even a love scene is filmed like a brawl; a literal battle of the sexes that’s more erotic than it has any right to be.
Trouble is, in spite of Themistokles’ ingenious tactics on the water, the repetitive nature of the war means that battle fatigue eventually sets in, as much for the viewers as the characters onscreen. And with the narrative aping the structure of the original so closely, at times it really does feel like we’ve seen it all before.
- +Awesome visuals
- +Impressive action
- +Eva Green dominating proceedings
- –Feels like we've seen it all before
- –Sullivan Stapleton is no Gerard Butler