How do you make a sequel when everyone dies at the end of the first movie? You don't; you make a sidequel/parallelequel like 300: Rise of an Empire instead. No need to dodge the fact that almost the entire cast was slaughtered at the end of the previous movie because with a sort-of-sequel set before, during and after the events of 300, fans even get a bit of Gerard Butler thrown in for good measure.
300: Rise of an Empire zooms out from the battle of Thermopylae where King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans faced down the Persian army. It follows Athenian commander Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton channelling Russell Crowe) as he attempts to lead an army of free men (bakers, poets etc. but all still ridiculously buff), not trained soldiers, into a battle against the Persian navy led by ruthless leader Artemisia (Eva Green). The odds may not be as stacked against Themistokles as they were with Leonidas but the stakes are similar; the fate of Greece and democracy lying hanging in the balance. With Persian God-King Xerxes pulling the strings but Artemisia leading the ships into battle, Themistokles must inspire his men and his whole country to unite in the battle at sea.
300 was a stylish, uber-violent take on Greek mythology that really put Zack Snyder's name on the map. Sitting back in the producing chair, new director Noam Murro has taken much of the stylistic signature of Frank Miller's graphic novel and Snyder's film and run with it. The blood still pours thick and fast with dazzling camera angles again frequently employed to relish the bloodshed. Those wickedly fast fighting moves followed by luxurious slow motion bloodletting are all present and correct and added to this, the battles that are mostly set at sea are gut-churningly realised on grey waters under even greyer skies. Like 300 before it, Rise of an Empire is a visual treat, as long as you can stomach all the beheadings and bloodshed. The 3D too adds a stunning extra depth with one scene of Xerxes standing high above his army even inducing vertigo.
While Sullivan Stapleton adds little to the hero mould laid out by the likes of Russell Crowe and Gerard Butler, he makes a convincing leader even if his battle speeches start to drag on by the end. Less shouty and Scottish than Leonidas, he is also a little less impressive. He is surrounded by a bunch of characters who should be more interesting for not being the one dimensional fearless nutters of 300 but actually come out similarly stagnant. Jack O'Connell gets to play a young soldier who threatens to turn Jack the Lad geezer at any moment with his accent teetering on the edge but none of the other Greeks will make much of an impact.
Instead, the real draw here is Eva Green's deliciously wicked and gorgeously attired Artemisia who commands the Persian fleet with a simple minded desire for revenge. Given a typically Miller-esque back story to explain this real character from his history's strength, Artemisia is now a victim of rape and family murder that left her scarred for life and burning for revenge. Green gets to strut around her ships in a range of wonderfully designed costumes, with a wicked glint in her eye and smirk on her lips and never far from her next act of brutality (including having a snog with a beheaded head). A disturbing sex scene with her enemy Thermistokles threatens to derail her character while giving new meaning to the idea of rough sex but she remains a tough, if predictable presence throughout the film.
Dipping in and out of the first film's timeline, 300: Rise of an Empire interweaves its story expertly. With Lena Headey returning to narrate the story as Spartan Queen Gorgo, there are plenty of nods to 300 and even brief clips from the first film reused. Starting with a ten years earlier prologue that is all mud, blood, splintering wood and expository narration, it is not long until Themistokles is visiting Sparta to unsuccessfully ask for help and then later returning to again seek assistance after the 300 have made their bloody stand on the battlefield.
Rise of an Empire finally takes the proper role of sequel for its final battle which while looking as stunning as the rest of the film, all cold grey and blue hues as opposed to the hot colours of 300, falls down a bit with a ludicrous horse ride on the high seas. It also climaxes at an unexpected point that may leave many fans wondering just what the hell happens next. Expect another bloody sequel/sidequel/parallelequel to follow.