Based on the graphic novel “Xerxes” by Frank Miller, “300: Rise of an Empire” is less a sequel to the 2006 film “300” and more an attempt to tell the concurrent story of the Athenian general Themistokles. The story begins with Queen Gorgo (Lena Headley) narrating the victory of Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) at the battle of Marathon ten years prior.
She expresses the seeming madness of Themistokles when he leads the Athenians against a larger Persian force at the water’s edge. His genius soundly defeats the unprepared and weary Persian army, and his arrow mortally wounds the Persian king. In spite of the victory, says Gorgo, Themistokles will be forever troubled because he could have also killed the king’s son Xerxes, instead he turned away and let the prince care for his father.
On his death bed, King Darius warns his son that only the gods can defeat Greece. Hearing this Artemisia (Eva Green), the Persian naval commander and top aid of Darius, removes the arrow from his chest speeding his death. She advises his son that Darius’ words were not a warning, but a challenge.
Under Artemisia’s guidance, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is wrapped in rags and sent to wander the desert. He finds his way to a cave where he is reborn as a god-king and returns to lead Persia against the Greeks. Xerxes and his army travel by land and Artemisia leads the Persian navy.
Themistokles tries to align all of the Greek city-states to defend Greek freedom. He is too late, however, because King Leonidas of Sparta has already left to meet the Persian army with 300 Spartans. Themistokles leads a small fleet of ships from the rest of the city-states against Artemisia’s navy.
After a pair of victories, Artemisia invites Themistokles to her ship to offer him a position in her navy. Ultimately Themistokles refuses and Artemisia sends him away. The next battle, Artemisia takes command and uses a barge full of tar to destroy much of the Greek fleet with fire and explosives.
Washed ashore, Themistokles learns of Leonidas’ death and the Persian army heading toward Athens. He tries a final time to bring the Spartan navy to help, returning the sword of Leonidas to Queen Gorgo, who is still mourning the loss of her husband.
He returns to his men and while Athens burns in the distance prepares them to die free men, rather than be captives of the Persians. The handful of surviving triremes and their men prepare to face impossible odds against hundreds of Persian vessels.
From an action perspective, “300: Rise of an Empire” moves quickly, is very graphic and gives little chance to get bored. The heavily overdone use of slow motion and halted action on the most graphic images ensures that fans of blood get their fill.
Several times, I couldn’t help but cover my eyes during the film. Not because of the blood and gore, but because the dialogue and delivery was embarrassingly bad. A gory war film is more concerned with its presentation of death than the realism of its dialogue, but that is no excuse for the head-shakingly bad dialog in this film.
As the story is highly fictionalized, it certainly shouldn’t be used to provide answers on any Greek history exam beyond the names and places. With all of the dramatic license used, the story is far from compelling, and feels like a simple excuse for shooting some war scenes, rather than something that could stand on its own.
Is the 3D worth it? Not really. In large number of scenes dust, sparks, blood splashes hanging in the air, serve only to point out that this is a 3D film. Hopefully that trend ends soon. Maybe at the same time films stop artificially slowing down the action to feature certain poses.
“300: Rise of an Empire” delivers little beyond its predecessor. For fans of bloody ancient war scenes, there is good reason to see it on the big screen. Others might as well skip the show altogether, rather than wait for video.