It’s Greeks versus Persians, round number two, in “300: Rise of an Empire,” a robust continuation of the 2007 virtual-reality hit “300” about the famous battle of Thermopylae. If you enjoyed the original, you’ll undoubtedly like the new film.
One brilliant thing about the newbie is that it’s a true sequel. The dirty secret of most Hollywood sequels is that they’re understood by everyone involved to be remakes. These “sequels” essentially re-do crowd-pleasing elements from an original until audience exhaustion sets in, i.e., the “Die Hard” and “Rocky” series.
But since all our Spartan friends were dead by the end of the first film, Frank Miller, on whose graphic novels the series is based, had to create a second story within the framework of the original (with an assist from ancient history).
Thus the movie focuses on a sea battle between the Greek navy, mostly Athenians lead by general Themistokles, against an overwhelmingly superior Persian navy in numbers commanded by a fearsome woman warrior, Artemisia.
Sullivan Stapleton (“Gangster Squad”) plays Themistokles while Eva Green (“Casino Royale”) is his equally intense counterpart, Artemisia. The vast sea battles take on a distinctly personal flavor as these antagonists grow to admire one another’s strategy even to the point that a summit meeting between the two takes place at the movie’s high point — and possibly a point of high camp as well.
Never has lovemaking been depicted as hand-to-hand combat as between these two. It’s gloriously over the top as she tries to seduce him into switching sides with rough sex. Then at just the right moment, she shouts “Join me!”
He says no — even as he, ahem, does so.
Sorry is that really a plot spoiler? I don’t think anyone expects him to say yes.
Zack Snyder, who directed “300” then moved on to the Superman franchise at Warner Bros., turns the reigns over to Israeli commercials director Noam Murro here.
The new director does a perfectly efficient job although I think Synder got a little more fun out of the first go-round, which may have something to do with Gerard Butler, who starred as the ill-fated Spartan commander but obviously could not return for the sequel.
Otherwise the film is bloody warfare with axes, swords, spears and arrows splattering fake red stuff all over the screen. Working with Australian cinematographer Simon Duggan (“The Great Gatsby”), Murro re-creates the previous film’s distinctive duo-chromatic palate with the actors again performing against mostly digital sets.
This is a virtual world, of course, which removes one from the gruesomeness of such trench warfare. Indeed the combat manages a stylized approximation of the battle descriptions in Homer — impossible in any realistic sense, a brutal, awful violence elevated to a heroic level.
The screenplay by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, based on the graphic novel “Xerxes” by Frank Miller, gets off to an awkward start as too much exposition and recapitulation take place before the movie can settle into action. It’s a bit tedious (although perhaps necessary). Once the second act begins, however, it’s nearly all action from that point.
The fun comes in watching the two leads battle through waves of warriors especially Green who seems determined to conquer Greece all by herself.
She’s part Michelle Yeoh and part Ursula Andress, a lusty performance that takes one’s mind off the otherwise homoerotic beefcake show of the Greeks (“Skins” as they seem to prefer to fight with bare chests) and Persians (“Shirts” only really heavy armor that should give them a decided advantage but somehow does not).
There is a long, impressive naval engagement as the camera swoops and dives from every conceivable direction: Greek ships charge the Persian armada, aiming for their boats’ weakness like battering rams, and mighty wooden vessels get reduced to splinters by the rocks of a narrow strait.
There are sideshows such as the father-son team of Scyllias and Calisto (Callan Mulvey and Jack O’Connell), a failed political effort by Themistokles to enlist the aid of Lena Headey’s returning Spartan Queen Gorgo and the pomp and preening of Persian mortal turned god Xerxes (another returning actor, Rodrigo Santoro).
But most eyes will remain on those lovebirds, the vengeful Artemisia, born Greek but turned against her own people for good enough reasons, and Themistokles, more a politician-farmer than actual warrior but he does slice and dice with the best of ‘em.
The new “300” in 2D and 3D — the 3D adds very little — is rousing if forgettable fun.
Opens: March 7, 2014 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Cruel and Unusual Films, Mark Canton/Gianni Nunnari Productions
Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, Andrew Tiernan, Igal Naor, Andrew Pleavin
Director: Noam Murro
Screenwriters: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad
Based on the graphic novel by: Frank Miller
Producers: Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton, Zack Snyder, Bernie Goldman
Executive producers: Thomas Tull, Frank Miller, Stephen Jones, Craig J. Flores, Jon Jashni
Director of photography: Simon Duggan
Production designer: Patrick Tatopoulos
Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne
Music: Junkie XL
Visual effects supervisors: Richard Hollander, John ‘DJ’ Desjardin
Editors: Wyatt Smith, David Brenner
R rating, 103 minutes