In 300: Rise of an Empire, Eva Green commands a navy and bares her navel with equal aplomb. Cast as Artemisia, a Greek orphan adopted by the Persian conqueror King Darius (Igal Naor) – and thus the de facto stepsister to his sociopath-in-waiting son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro – Green revels in her warrior-woman character and her wardrobe, including some spiky body armour that makes her look like a sexy stegosaurus. Because Artemisia is on the wrong side of a brutal campaign being waged against her countrymen by the now-grown Xerxes, she is ostensibly the film's villainess, and plenty of Greeks die by her nimble hand. But Green's reckless abandon in the part makes it hard to root against her.
She's definitely more appealing than our nominal hero, the bearded Greek general Themistokles, played by the young Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton. In the original 300, Gerard Butler cut a kingly figure as the Spartan leader Leonidas but Stapleton doesn't quite have enough cartoon-brute presence to carry the day. In fact, fans of 300 might sit hoping for a cameo from Butler considering that the story here takes place mostly concurrently with the events of the first film. It's being marketed as a sequel, but Rise of an Empire is more accurately described as an extension of the 300 universe, like an add-on content pack for a video game.
Taking over in the director's chair for Zack Snyder, Noam Murro utilizes a similarly video-game-esque visual scheme, all digitally assisted tracking shots, teeming battlefield tableaus, and spurting carotid arteries. This Xbox aesthetic was at least somewhat unique when 300 came out in 2006, but seven years' worth of slicked-up sword-and-sandal epics has diminished its novelty significantly. At least one large-scale battle sequence, set aboard a flaming wooden ship and climaxing with the surreal sight of sea serpents snacking on the capsized casualties, has a certain loony grandeur, but Murro doesn't have Snyder's talent for either violence or velocity, even as he keeps doubling down on both.
Critics who called out 300's underlying political allegory – the democratic West staving off the Middle Eastern barbarians at the gate – will find more of the same here, as will those who giggled at the original film's homoeroticism find plenty more well-oiled torsos and basso-voiced speeches about brotherhood and honour. At the same time, Murro does his best to play up the lustful dynamic between Artemisia and Themistokles, whose mutual respect for the other's military tactics masks a palpable attraction. By throwing herself headfirst into scenes that a more cautious actress might beg off, Green earns herself a citation for valour – a Purple Heart in a movie that's otherwise way too grim and grey for its own good.