* out of ****
300: Rise of an Empire may be the most American film ever made. Never have I seen another movie where the word "freedom" is used so frequently, nor with such cliché. I half expected George W. Bush to be listed in the writing credits. Sadly, this film is not our cinematic Star Spangled Banner - nor the ancient Greeks, who fight to maintain their independence in this feebleminded follow up.
The plot structure is interesting in that its timeline parallels the original, while also serving as a prequel and sequel. The story begins prior to the events of the first 300, with Athenian General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) killing the Persian King Darius I (Yigal Naor) in battle before his son, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Darius instructs Xerxes to let the Greeks have their victory, telling him the gods will have their vengeance if they choose. Xerxes obliges, however Darius' naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) - with a Greek vendetta of her own - convinces Xerxes to transform himself into a god and avenge his father.
I could go on, but let's be honest, the plot here is incidental, and not what moviegoers care about. What fills the seats - and most of Rise of an Empire's one hour and 40 minutes running time - is scene after boneheaded scene of endless evisceration. This may still hype some viewers, but 8 years since the original and God knows how many films that ripped-off its formula in between, this routine is insufferably stale. Seriously, how is a move that is practically 95% action sequences this boring? As for the film's ultra-violence, it's so phony. The creators may think they were being more realistic going the CGI route, but their crudely animated carnage comes across just as fake as it did in '80s B-movie splatterfests, only upgraded and in interminable slow motion. The bloodshed is so unconvincingly Photoshop-esque that it looks like it was lifted from an early "Mortal Kombat" game.
Also, why did the screenwriters abandon the hellish fantasy creatures and mystic surrealism that populated the world of its predecessor? Did they not see the original? What a missed opportunity. The 3D environs in Rise of an Empire are the finest I've seen since Avatar. It would have been nice to experience something wildly imaginative flying out at you rather than, oh, another severed head.
The only thing that remotely held my interest is Green's sultry villainess Artemisia, who, though just as cookie-cutter as any of the other characters we're presented with, is the dark, kickass kind of woman I go for. Along with Lena Headey, returning as Queen Gorgo of Sparta, she is also the only cast member who has probably acted in anything besides a male undergarment commercial.
If you must see this movie, see it in 3D (I can't fathom how intolerable it would be otherwise). Also, hit up the theater bar beforehand and grab a drink - maybe a round of shots while you're at it. Get yourself mentally lubricated to dumb out for about 2 hours. And if you really want to get your money's worth for your ticket, don't miss the previews. The 3D trailers for Captain American: The Winter Soldier, Amazing Spider Man 2 and Transcendence deliver far better action than anything in the stillborn bore-fest you're about to endure.