When "300" came out seven years ago, it was a legitimate cultural phenomenon, at least among anyone male aged 16-25, myself included. And I'll have to admit, other than the overdose of testosterone that made everyone in my high school want to become a Spartan warrior, the film's use of CGI and slow motion was somewhat unprecedented. Also somewhat unprecedented was the way the entire main cast got into shape for the movie. Not since the 1980s had anyone seen so many buff bodies in a single movie. And although it was based on a graphic novel, "300" did well enough, and like anything that makes enough money in Hollywood, they made a sequel.
Fortunately, the original graphic novel is based on events set during a particularly turbulent time in Greece's history. So there was absolutely more than enough material to draw from in order to make a coherent follow-up story. And that's the thing. I can only call "Rise of an Empire" a pseudo-sequel because most of the movie isn't set after the events of "300." Instead, it touches on events that occurred before and concurrent to what was going on with Leonidas and company. The finale is set after Leonidas and the 300 got overrun. It's an interesting way to frame a follow-up movie.
"Rise of an Empire" starts out with Leonidas' widow (played by Lena Hedey of "Game of Thrones") recalling the Battle of Marathon, in which a then-nobody Athenian soldier named Themistocles managed to not only help an over matched Greek army drive back the Persian invaders, he also managed to kill the Persian King Darius. I won't really care much about spoilers because this is a fairly straightforward movie, and if you took any history classes, you should be at least somewhat familiar with what's going on here. Anyway, Darius dies as a result of his wounds, and his most loyal servant, Artemesia (Eva Green of "Casino Royale"), swears vengeance on the Greeks. But first, she somehow turns Darius' cowardly son Xerxes into the "god king" we all remember from the original movie. Xerxes (and Artemesia, who is manipulating him) blames all of Persia's previous problems on Greece and declares war again. And that's where our story really begins.
While "300" focused on the land battle in Greece's war against Persia, "Rise of an Empire" has a much more nautical feel to it. It follows the aforementioned Themistocles, who was actually present during events of the original movie (he narrowly missed the famous "THIS IS SPARTA" moment). While Leonidas wants to fight his battle on land, Themistocles challenges the Persians at sea. It's an interesting change of scenery and changes the overall hue from orange/bronze to blue. Either way, it's all still very obvious CGI done in the style that Zack Snyder made all the rage for stylish action movies. Like its predecessor, the battles here are over the top and a lot of fun to watch. The fact that most of "Rise of an Empire" takes place at sea make for a somewhat more tactical feel since it deals with ships and not just people. Leonidas was all about funneling large amounts of men into a tight space so that they could be slaughtered easily. Themistocles is more calculating and strategic, utilizing feigned retreats and deception that lead to some of the movie's best sequences. And for some reason, I found this entry to actually up the gore up from its predecessor. At least in the dismemberment arena. I won't say too much, but the finale is very satisfying to watch. However, the style of the action is not new. But that doesn't mean it's not fun, either.
These are not movies you watch for acting. Sullivan Stapleton, while passable, is no Gerard Butler in terms of stage presence (who wasn't even that good an actor in the first one to begin with considering how one-dimensional these roles are). The clear standout here is Eva Green. Her character of Artemesia is deliciously manipulative and quite frankly, sexy as hell. And that's what makes her such a great villain. She's not afraid to manipulate those around her to get what she wants. She's not afraid to sleep with the enemy. And like Darth Vader, she doesn't smile upon failure. Lena Hedey and David Wenham reprise their roles from the previous film, but they're honestly more like extended cameos.
Overall, "Rise of an Empire" accomplishes exactly the same thing its predecessor did. It introduces a very fantasized portion of Greek history to a new crowd, who might have been too young when "300" was first released. The score will get your adrenaline pumping, and there's a rather awesome use of Black Sabbath's hit "War Pigs" somewhere in there. It's a little less effective and jarring than its predecessor, but it still works. At least for an action-movie lover like me, watching these types of stylish, ultra-violent movies won't get old for a good long while.