If 300: Rise of an Empire isn't irrefutable proof that the MPAA is hopelessly biased and broken, then may Zack Snyder be forced to eat King Leonidas' bloodstained sandals off of his cold, dead feet. An artfully crafted piece of comic-book propaganda, director Noam Murro's sequel to Snyder's stylized historical hit may well be the bloodiest spectacle ever released into mainstream theaters. From the vivid POV decapitation that opens the film to the screaming charge that closes it, 300: Rise of an Empire subjects us to a relentless barrage of stabbings, slashings, impalements, beheadings, and skull splittings -- frequently in a single scene -- that are only occasionally interrupted by exposition or macho, fist-pumping speeches intended to inspire the battle-scarred Greeks to victory.
Likewise, with all of the testosterone-fueled braggadocio about Greek nobility, justice, and vengeance versus Persian cruelty and oppression, not to mention the film's portrayal of what may be history's very first suicide bombing, there's no escaping the nagging thought that 300: Rise of an Empire is a jingositc bid to whip draft-age males into a frenzy of freedom-loving bloodlust -- a suspicion that isn't helped by the fact that more bodies are dismembered in one sequence of this movie than in the entire Friday the 13th series (which frequently suffered the wrath of MPAA snipping throughout the conservative 1980s) and yet it managed to squeak by with an R rating.
The story here is a simple one: In the wake of the Persians' victory over King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, the God King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) appears poised to conquer Greece. As vindictive Persian navy commander Artemisia (Eva Green) assembles a massive fleet of ships and sets sail for conquest, Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) strives to rally his countrymen to fight for freedom, and he manages to gain the upper hand over the invaders by confronting them at sea. Meanwhile, Leonidas' former advisor and wife Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) is reluctant to sacrifice any more Spartans in a fight that appears to be unwinnable. When the Greeks enjoy an early victory over Artemisia and her soldiers, however, it appears that Themistokles' unconventional tactics are more effective than the Persian Empire's formidable brawn. But later, after Artemisia's attempt to seduce Themistokles to her side proves unsuccessful, the spurned naval commander deals a devastating blow to her Greek opponents. In the aftermath of that skirmish, Themistokles is presumed dead and Athens falls. The Persian Empire seems on the verge of victory, though when Xerxes and Artemisia learn that Themistokles lives, they realize the fight won't be over until he takes his final breath.
Regardless of how you feel about the politics of 300: Rise of an Empire, one has to admit that director Murro has done an exceptional job of recreating the distinctive look and feel of Snyder's previous film. From the hyper-saturated colors to the lucidly rendered battle sequences, viewers could almost be fooled into thinking that Snyder had returned to the helm here, if not for the eye-popping closing credits. Even if he was too busy reinventing Superman to be lurking over Murro's shoulders, Snyder still managed to leave a distinctive mark on the production as co-screenwriter (along with Kurt Johnstad) and producer. Also, given the film's overt theme of nationalism, few will find it surprising that original comic-book creator Frank Miller has returned in executive-producer capacity as well. To their credit and Murro's, 300: Rise of an Empire retains the aesthetics of the original movie like few other sequels in history -- an impressive feat considering the seven-year gap that separates them.
Despite his relative lack of experience in the genre, Murro stages action scenes with a competent eye here as Snyder and Johnstad's flimsy screenplay drives the plot forward. Though their efforts are appropriately aided by a cast whose epic posturing is only exceeded by their commendable green-screen acting abilities, the historical figures are still painted in childishly broad strokes. Outside of his majestic costuming, Santoro offers practically no indication of just what it was about Xerxes that inspired such fierce devotion among his soldiers, and while Eva Green occasionally evokes the sensual malevolence of Barbara Steele, her character comes off more as the world's worst boss than the Persian Empire's most brilliant tactician.
The fact that revenge drives the story line of virtually every character in 300: Rise of an Empire would make the movie hopelessly dull if it weren't for the "strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout," not to mention "a sex scene" that may be the most hilariously hateful one ever filmed. Additionally, Australian television star Stapleton, despite his best efforts, never summons the intensity that Gerard Butler so effortlessly exuded in the previous film. As a result, we long to root for Themistokles' men as underdogs, even though his cries to action never stir us on the same visceral level as Butler's bellowing of "THIS IS SPARTA!" But that isn't likely to matter much in the end, because chances are good that young men will still flock to the theaters in droves, where their judgment will be blinded by the geysers of blood spewing forth from the screen in glorious 3D. Meanwhile, when the credits roll, they'll pour out into the parking lot itching for a fight, and perhaps be inspired to finally approach those recruiters who've been turning up at their schools, encouraging them to "Go Army."