300: Rise of an Empire tells the tale of the other front in the Second Persian Invasion, concurrent with the Battle of Thermopylae chronicled in the first film. Kind of a “Meanwhile, on the Aegean Sea.” As King Leonidas (reused footage of Gerard Butler) is leading his mighty Spartans on a seeming suicide mission against the ground forces of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), Athenian politician and naval war hero Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) attempts to rally the Greek city-states against the equally daunting Persian navy.
It starts with a little backstory on our new protagonist, Themistokles. Apparently this whole damn thing is his fault. See, ten years ago, when Xerxes's daddy, Darius, was trying to subjugate the Greeks during the First Persian Invasion, Themistokles kinda killed him with an arrow and then made the mistake of not taking out Xerxes at the same time.
Mind you, back then, Xerxes was actually normal-looking. And he wasn't even the No. 1 Son, to be honest. Darius favored the darkly beautiful Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek-born, Persian-bred naval dominatrix with a ton of baggage. She also feels the king's loss, and becomes the catalyst for the next Persian conquest, whispering in Xerxes's ear. So X-Man goes on some kind of spirit walk, takes a dip in a magic hot tub and emerges a god-king with a golden jockstrap and shiny chip on his shoulder to match.
Flash forward to present history: with Greece facing a two-front war, Themistokles fails to win support from some of the less awesome city-states, who are perfectly willing to submit to Persian rule. Plus, the ever-charming/deriding Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) of Sparta thinks they're doing enough on land, and won't chip in. So it's up to Themistokles to lead an outmatched force of sculptors and farmers against the bloodthirsty might of Persia in the hope that their sacrifice might unite Greece in opposition.
An adaptation of another graphic novel offering — this one entitled Xerxes — from prolific creator Frank Miller, Rise offers the same brand of blood, bravery and brotherhood as its predecessor. It is sure to satisfy fans excited by the idea of a sequel to 300, while enduring the same style-over-content criticisms from the world's cinema hacks. It's heavy on visuals, and just as prone to big speeches on big concepts in the midst of big battles. Consider it less of a sequel and more of another installment in a newly minted franchise of historical fantasy epics filled with splashy death.
At first, Stapleton seems like a downgrade from Butler; the former's quiet charm doesn't exactly fill the void left by the latter's guttural brogue and cartoonish hard-on for battle. Keep in mind, however, that we're comparing a dignified Athenian politician and a Spartan warrior-king; Stapleton actually portrays his part quite ably. Green absolutely shines in her spotlight-stealing role, simultaneously as scary as she is sexy. Her turn as the vicious vixen will leave you unsure if you're turned on or terrified (hint: it's both).
One question is why this film bore the "300 II" title, and wasn't simply called Xerxes like its source material. Oh, they're building a brand? Cool, that makes sense, because — spoiler alert — according to Herodotus, Greek history has already written the penultimate chapter of a trilogy (in hindsight, that's not much of a spoiler). Given sufficient commercial success with Rise, look for 300 III in the next few years. It will tell the tale of the concurrent land and naval battles of Plataea and Mycale and probably be centered around Pausanias, nephew of Leonidas.
You heard it here first.
Audiences are getting exactly what they're paying to see in 300: Rise of an Empire. It's a satisfying thrill ride for those who enjoy a decently told epic paired with 3D blood-splatter that occasionally goes from over-the-top to silly (and defies the laws of physics), so fans of the first will enjoy the follow-up.