What to make of the bloody mess that is “300: Rise of an Empire”?
It’s equal parts prequel, sequel and companion piece to Zack Snyder’s 2006 stylized action epic “300.” Mostly, though, it is a demonstration of how rarely movie lightning strikes twice.
The story is narrated by the Spartan queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who lost her king and lover, Leonidas, when he and 300 Spartans sacrificed themselves to the Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. This battle, which was depicted in “300,” is going on while the central action of this movie is playing out — and it’s referenced so often you might wish you could click to another channel to watch it instead.
Gorgo flashes back to the origin of the Persian god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who was a callow prince when his father, Darius (Igal Naor), was slain in battle by the Athenian general Themistokles (played by the Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton).
Themistokles is the hero of “300: Rise of an Empire,” though a troubled one — because he knows that if he had killed Xerxes when he had the chance, the next wave of Persian invaders might never have attacked Greece.
While Themistokles tries to unite the squabbling city-states of Greece in defense, Xerxes and his naval commander — the ruthless and vengeance-seeking Artemisia (Eva Green) — prepare the Persian navy to cut through the ragtag Grecian fleet and burn Athens to the ground.
But Artemisia (who gets her own origin flashback) fails to reckon with Themistokles’ tactical skills, which are sharper than any of her own generals’. Artemisia arranges a meeting with Themistokles to offer him a command at her side, but he declines out of loyalty to Greece — but not before they engage in raucous hate-sex.
Snyder co-wrote the script with his “300” collaborator Kurt Johnstad (again adapting from the work of comic-book artist Frank Miller). Snyder went off to direct “Man of Steel,” leaving the directing chores to Israeli filmmaker Noam Murro, whose only other feature credit is the 2008 Sundance Film Festival entry “Smart People.”
Murro tries valiantly to re-create the stylized battle style of Snyder’s earlier film, with long swooping shots pasted together in the computer — and torrents of blood spurting as if every dead Persian was given a personal Gatorade shower. But while Snyder’s film had an artful (if rather fetishizing) take on ancient warfare, here all the stabbing, spearing and such are a chaotic jumble of deathly images.
Meanwhile, the script overburdens Stapleton and his bare-chested Athenian castmates with endlessly talky scenes between battles and saddles Headey with yards of unnecessary plot exposition.
Gerard Butler, who played Leonidas in the first “300,” turned down an offer to reprise the role in “300: Rise of an Empire.” Butler hasn’t always made the best career choices — after all, he’s made rom-coms with Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Biel — but he correctly smelled a rat here.
‘300: Rise of an Empire
Ancient Greeks fight on land and sea in this chaotic, bloody action drama.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language.
Running time • 102 minutes.