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Film review: Once more unto the breach

“300: Rise of an Empire” revels in its ancestor’s distinctive blood-soaked glory, and therefore wins over fans thirsting to see Greece and Persia do battle again.

Following his triumph over Leonidas’ 300, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) continues his campaign against the Greek city-states. The democratic Athens is the first city to be targeted, and Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), leader of the Athenian fleet, finds himself outnumbered by the invading Persian forces.

Themistocles must also contend with two problems: allying with Athens’ rival, the oligarchic Sparta, led by the widowed Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), and battling Artemisia (Eva Green), the vengeful commander of the Persian navy.

From a surface standpoint, “Rise of an Empire” inherits the original’s stylistic formula — slow motion set pieces, saturated color schemes, arresting cinematography, and melodramatic acting — and magnifies it further via sound intensity. The bloody carnage sinks into your ears so deep that you find yourself refusing to ignore the chaos bellowing out of the screen. Anxious fans, you need not worry — this return to the world Zack Snyder introduced us to is still the same.

While this sequel has much to gain from its family tree, it has a lot to lose as well, because, like many of its kind, it stands no chance of surpassing the original’s impact. And how is this true? Because…well, it stays inside its comfort zone and refuses to evolve, for better or worse.

The extent to which the writing quality has declined in the years following the first “300” cannot be ignored, considering the immovable state of its romanticized dialogue and graphic emotions.

It’s a routine the viewer knows by heart: the Greeks fight to preserve the ideal of freedom, while the Persians conquer to fulfill a god-king’s delusions of grandeur. This maritime action flick is firmly in its forefather’s camp, and has no interest in walking out anytime soon.

Normally I enjoy ocean-faring vessels going toe-to-toe with each other, but somehow, they don’t have that same zing as a small warrior unit confronting a much bigger army on land does.

That doesn’t make Themistocles and Artemisia’s clashing of warships any less technically accomplished; it’s just that they can’t compare with Leonidas and his Spartans of “300.”

Half the time, this film doesn’t come into its own, relying too heavily on connections to its predecessor. “Rise of an Empire” intersperses the concurrent fighting at Thermopylae from “300” among the naval engagements at Artemisium and Salamis, in the hopes of creating a more cohesive saga. Although this technique provides fans with the ultimate big screen experience, it also impairs the sequel’s ability to operate independently.

Sullivan Stapleton may have the chiseled six-pack and combative valor to defend Greece, but his Themistocles will never measure up to Gerard Butler’s Leonidas. Lena Headey excels in her role of the regal and resolute Queen Gorgo; even though her presence is somewhat unnecessary this time around, fans will be happy to see she hasn’t changed.

Rodrigo Santoro, who plays Xerxes, also hasn’t changed much. When you’re a megalomaniacal king who fancies himself a god among mortals, you don’t need to do much to prove that you are the boss other than look inhuman and wear plenty of gold jewelry.

As for Eva Green, she instills a gutsy zealousness in the vengeful Artemisia, lighting up the screen with an implacable drive guaranteed to intimidate most viewers. That being said, why did the script have to let her down? Her Artemisia demonstrates none of the strategic brilliance mentioned in the ads, and the love-hate relationship between her and Themistocles feels contrived. And it’s disappointing to see her character directly participate in a single action sequence — a sword duel — and not grant that scintillating scene the length it deserves.

Fans who have long awaited a sequel to Zack Snyder’s “300” can rest assured that “Rise of an Empire” won’t disappoint them. It probably won’t witness an influx of new converts, but it will satisfy veterans that are itching for ancient, albeit historically inaccurate, blood to be shed.

MPAA rating: R for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language.

Run time: 1 hour and 42 minutes

Playing: In general  release


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