The first 300 movie was known for the line “This is Sparta” — which has now been immortalized in contemporary pop culture — and for its showers of cinematic blood. 300: Rise of an Empire reuses that same line and delivers more over-the-top combat. But it also manages to add depth to a cinematic universe that has not been taken seriously.
Rise of an Empire is not merely a sequel that follows up on the events of the preceding movie: it is a prequel, a midquel and a sequel, fleshing out the plot and setting of the first 300. No longer does the film center around the hyper-masculine Spartan warriors staining the soil with Persian blood — Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) is an Athenian who can hold his own against any Spartan. It turns out that he and the rest of Greece weren’t just standing around idly while King Leonidas and the other 299 Spartans fought for glory in the first film.
No longer are the Persians just nameless aggressors to be broken by Greek fortitude. Rise of an Empire shows their story as well, revealing that King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) wasn’t always a bald, extremely tall, extremely strange-looking god-king. Most importantly, we are introduced to Artemisia (Eva Green). In a world where men do most of the heavy lifting, Artemisia manages to be more intimidating than any male soldier and proves to be excellent foil for Themistocles. Green steals the show with a chilling and evocative performance that grabs you by the collar and refuses to let go until the credits roll.
Regardless of improvements in plot and character, the 300 series will always be a spectacle for the senses and in this department, Rise of an Empire goes bigger than its predecessor. Much of the action takes place on the sea where waves and lightning create a treacherous, visually stunning battlefield. Slow motion is used liberally to enhance the effect of blood spewing from the bodies of the recently killed. Vessels shatter and flames engulf the vanquished. Each fight scene is creatively conceptualized and rendered, making for a roller-coaster ride from start to finish.
300: Rise of an Empire is not for the faint of heart, nor will it please lovers of historical accuracy. However, it manages to blend pulse-pounding action and gorgeous set pieces with memorable characters and a surprisingly ambitious plot. This latest adventure through a heavily romanticized ancient Greece is certainly worth the price of admission.