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‘300: Rise of an Empire’: More brilliant battles and gorgeous gore

‘300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE’ ★★★1⁄2

Themistokles | Sullivan Stapleton

Artemisia | Eva Green

Queen Gorgo | Lena Headey

Xerxes | Rodrigo Santoro

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Noam Murro and written by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, based on the graphic novel “Xerxes” by Frank Miller. Running time: 103 minutes. Rated R (for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language). Opens March 7 at local theaters.

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Updated: April 8, 2014 6:15AM



If you loved the gloriously and gratuitously blood-spattered visual style of Zack Snyder’s epic “300,” you’ll probably enjoy the hell out of “300: Rise of an Empire,” which manages to be something of a prequel, a sequel and a parallel story all at once.

Neat trick.

This time around, there are even more shirtless six-packed warriors who keep on declaring their love for one another and don’t even pretend they’d rather be at home with the women, and even better use of the 3-D technology that sends rivers of crimson blood and various amputated limbs and severed heads careening our way.

That “Rise of an Empire” isn’t quite as stunning as the original isn’t for lack of effort. It’s just that we’ve seen it once before.

Just as Loki has become arguably the most popular character in the two full-length “Thor” adventures, it’s the villain in “300: Rise of an Empire” who emerges as the most complex, the most colorful and the most entertaining figure in the story.

Eva Green’s Artemisia is a killer in more ways than one. She’s the kind of gal who will seduce a rival general in a closed-door summit (the guards exchanging knowing glances, even though the guards are wearing awesome metal masks) and then tell him in battle, “You fight a lot harder than you ...”

You know.

With eye shadow to rival any 21st century goth princess, a sexual appetite to shame anyone on television’s “Game of Thrones” and a backstory that would make Bruce Wayne/Batman bow his head and say, “And I thought I had it rough,” Artemisia is a Greek-born warrior who was abused in unspeakable ways by her countrymen and left for dead, only to be rescued by the Persians, who trained her in combat to the point at which she became the most feared warrior in the land if not the entire world.

Remember Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the giant bald bespangled god-king who led the attack on Gerard Butler’s Leonidas and his men in the original “300”? We get some backstory on him, and it turns out he’s basically the creation of Artemisia, who cares about nothing but bringing all of Greece to its knees. Xerxes is the insane monster with a voice nearly as booming as Darth Vader’s from “Star Wars, but Artemisia is the one who has vaunted Persian warrior-generals trembling in her presence.

The great King Leonidas (Butler, in what appears to be recycled footage) makes a few brief appearances in “Rise of an Empire,” while Lena Headey’s Queen Gorgo appears in some new scenes and serves as the narrator for a story that starts off sounding beyond complicated but actually becomes pretty clear as the exposition gives way to a number of gruesome battles, many of them waged at sea.

Sullivan Stapleton is the noble Gen. Themistokles, who tries to unite all of Greece’s city-states to defend the land against the Persians, who would still outnumber them 100-1 even if the city-states were to band together (and the remaining populace of Sparta doesn’t seem interested). Stapleton’s just fine as the male lead, though he lacks Butler’s animalistic screen presence and seems overmatched in certain scenes especially in one of the wildest and almost hilariously aggressive sex scenes we’ve seen in an R-rated movie in some time.

Snyder is the writer-producer of “Rise of an Empire,” but he turns over the directing reins to Noam Murro, who delivers the same distinctive visual palette of the original. We’re seeing live actors on meticulously created sets (and of course working within the world of computer-generated imagery), but the “300” films have such a unique, graphic-novel-in-motion look that it almost seems as if they’re animated.

Sometimes the battles on the Aegean Sea are difficult to follow, what with all the raging waters and the dark blues and grays — but in time-honored warrior-movie fashion, the main characters have little trouble dispensing of one anonymous foe after another until they find themselves isolated from the madness, staring right at another main character. Crazy how that happens in films like this, time and again.

And again.

If you don’t find anything amusing about slow-motion sequences of men (and women) chopping off each other’s arms and legs, decapitating one another and piercing hearts with knives and swords and other weapons, you’ll walk out of “Rise of an Empire” before Queen Gorgo is halfway through the opening narration. Even if you love this stuff, you might scratch your head sometimes at the logic espoused by the great Themistokles, who, along with many of his fellow Greek warriors, seems bent on figuring out the most glorious way to die. How about winning? There’s some fancy speechifying about living free and how it’s better to die on one’s feet then live on one’s knee, but mostly it seems like these men rather enjoy parading about shirtless while girding for the next horrific battle. “Who will share his wine with me?” bellows Themistokles after one victory, and 100 of his men raise their hands and roar as if to say, “Pick me, pick me!”

Even with the uniformly good performances — and the standout work from Ms. Green — “300: Rise of an Empire” is foremost a triumph of production design, costumes, brilliantly choreographed battle sequences and stunning CGI. Best of all, the actors and the filmmakers seem to know we’re supposed to be having fun with all this. For the characters, the stakes couldn’t be higher. For the audience, this is just hard-R popcorn fare.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper



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