300: Rise of an Empire plays like a collection of webisodes on the Blu-ray of the first film: not a movie in and of itself, so much as an elaborate support of another movie. It covers events before, during and after the Battle of Thermopylae, charting how the ancient Greeks took advantage of King Leonidas' great sacrifice to secure victory over the Persian Empire. But its muddled approach never conveys the importance of the events we see, instead casting a longing eye back to the original film where the real action is taking place.
The technical flourishes of the first film are on full display here, but eight years on, they lack the freshness that Zack Snyder first brought to them. Rise of an Empire treats us to scene after scene of bellowing Greek warriors cutting their Persian foes down in slow motion while CGI blood spurts in great wet blasts, but it can't convey the drama that makes those images work.
Our ostensible hero is the Athenian king Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), who dreams of uniting Greece under a democratic government. As drama, it feels like a justification for the cheerful fascism of the first film, reminding us of what Leonidas meant by "an age of freedom" that the first 300 never got around to properly articulating. Unfortunately, this new effort feels no less muddled, hamstrung by Stapleton's lack of screen presence and director Noam Murro's inability to invest his ponderous philosophizing with any weight. (I’m pretty sure someone actually quotes Vince Lombardi in the middle of it all.)
The battles exhibit a similar lack of direction: porting Thermopylae onto the high seas as Themistokles's fleet does battle with the Persian navy led by the sinister Artemisia (Eva Green). Without a better sense of the stakes and with the now-offscreen Battle of Thermopylae carrying the real weight, it becomes so much empty sound and noise. The first film's villain loses his way quite badly as well. We learn more about Xerxes (Rodrigo Santuro), who swears vengeance against the Greeks when is father dies at their hands and undergoes some kind of mystic transformation in the desert that makes absolutely no sense at all. Tied down by events in the first movie, he pops up only intermittently here, despite the fact that he seems to be one of the purposes of the exercise. Artemisia becomes his Mata Hari, manipulating him from behind the scenes and making him dance like a puppet in order to gain vengeance of her own. It reduces him to the level of a prop, as confused and aimless as the rest of the film.
Or more accurately, the rest of the film minus Green, whose performance here is an absolute revelation. Murro lacks the greasy misogyny that author Frank Miller could never shake (he’s Israeli, a country that seems to do pretty well with the whole “sisters are doing it for themselves” notion), and his leading lady reaps the full rewards. Murro gives her the dignity of real emotional weight, and while she remains nothing less than a villain, her wrinkles and quirks provide the depth of humanity in a film that primary exists as a living art book. Green feasts on every moment, sporting fantastic costumes from designer Alexandra Byrne and holding us rapt with every hateful glare. Add that to scenes of her Frenching the guy she just beheaded, and it’s almost enough to recommend Rise of an Empire solely to watch her do her thing.
Nowhere is this more true than in the film's surprising sex scene: playful and fresh rather than awkward or hateful the way so many can be. Green bares her breasts – and they are spectacular – but her nudity conveys strength and assurance instead of just leering titillation, and her tete a tet with her partner (who exactly would be telling) speaks to a refreshingly adult attitude about procreation. That may be the only place where Rise of an Empire outdoes its predecessor, and it couldn’t have happened without this actress front and center.
The rest of the film, sadly, doesn’t deserve her. Whenever Green departs, the energy levels sag and we’re left with a third-tier knock-off that can’t justify a single thing about itself. Considering the craptastic nature of this winter’s sword-and-sandals epic, Rise of an Empire stands as a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, but that’s small comfort when you’re watching it squander its potential. The release date eight years after the original says everything you need to know about it: a pale reflection of a surprise hit whose unique qualities have long since slipped into cliché.