Given that Zack Snyder's 2006 comic-book-peplum-epic 300 did not exactly invite a sequel (spoiler alert: the titular sum of heroes died), you have to give some credit to the makers of 300: Rise of an Empire. This sequel stands on its own as a savage, sexy variant that expands on the original in an organic way.
It helps that the movie changes its focus on its heroes. When the marauding Persian army threatens Greece, Gen. Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) visits Sparta to enlist the assistance of its bloodthirsty Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), while her husband and his fellow soldiers are still defending the country from Xerxes's kinky hordes at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae (as seen in 300).
Upon his entry to Sparta, Themistokles discovers a gang of lads beating the crap out of one of their younger constituents. He takes it all in and exasperatedly utters under his breath: "Spartans."
If you saw 300, you could probably relate. It's kind of a relief those brutal, quasi-fascist blokes are more or less shunted to the background. The focus is largely on the comparatively civilized Themistokles as he strategizes for all he is worth to defeat the armada of Persian vessels threatening Greece. The Persian ships are under the command of Artemesia (Eva Green), a Greek-born woman traumatized at an early age by the slaughter of her family and her own enslavement at the hands of her countrymen. She becomes the No. 1 henchwoman of Persian superman Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), and indeed facilitates his ascension after the death of his father, King Darius (Iqal Neor), at the hands of Themistokles.
To Themistokles, the sea battles are for the survival of a free Greece. For Artemesia, it's all foreplay, a fact that becomes evident when she invites the general to her ship, ostensibly for peace negotiations.
Evidently, the UN has a lot to learn from Artemesia.
One might be offended by the way Artemesia's political power is tied up with her sexuality, but it is also true of Themistokles, who, let's face it, doesn't show up to the peace talks wearing much in the way of clothing. Anyway, potential for offence is certainly mitigated by Green's rather captivating performance, which suggests Artemesia's sexual smoulder is actually righteous rage in full spark.
Director Noam Murro is not the man one might expect for this project, given that his previous feature was the low-budget indie comedy Smart People. But working from a screenplay by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad (adapted from Frank Miller's graphic novel Xerxes), he manages reasonably well, guiding us through this film's dense digital land and seascapes.
He more or less delivers the balletic, variable-speed slaughter in the style of the first film, with one distinction: the digital blood spilled from miscellaneous sword wounds is less splattery and more blobby.
Way to make your mark, Mr. Murro.