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Greek tragedy

    Sullivan Stapleton is Greek general Themistokles.
    A soldier leaps off a cliff in a scene from “300: Rise of an Empire.” Unlike its predecessor, the movie has most of its bloody battles at sea.
    Eva Green is Artemisia, bad gal and leader of the Persian fleet in “300: Rise of an Empire.”

Classical historians disagree, but it was probably Herodotus who first posed a question that would ring out across the ages, unanswered till now: Wouldn’t Eva Green look awesome kissing the severed head of an insolent captive?

"300: Rise of an Empire" puts the issue to rest (the answer: yes, but it’ll never last) and strives to uphold the rah-rah style of visuals and rhetoric established by its popular predecessor, "300."

Greece — or its tightly rendered, color-constrained graphic equivalent — is again in danger, but the battles in this contemporary sequel center on the sea. Free city-states are mustering a defense against the Persian invaders and their myriad ships, under ever-darkening prospects (and skies).

Rated: R
* *
Opens Friday

Unlike the death-cult Spartans, led to war in the earlier film by Gerard Butler in a performance that unleashed a thousand meme variations, this motley crew of slightly less chiseled Greeks follows the less inspiring, or, at any rate, less shouty, Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton of "Gangster Squad" and the TV show "Strike Back").

The hacking and impalement of ancient combat still yield gore that defies gravity and invites our delectation in the obligatory money-shot slow-motion. But the bigger mortal threat to manliness lies in the Persians’ vicious naval commander, Artemisia (Green), impossibly willowy and virtually dripping black, like an Aubrey Beardsley drawing.

A Greek who suffered horrifically at the hands of warring countrymen, she’s revealed as the eminence grise behind Xerxes (swaggeringly reprised by Rodrigo Santoro), though Green sometimes suggests cruel hauteur more often than she puts it across. Meanwhile, the Persian emperor’s origin story — his transformation into a bejeweled, manscaped god-king — is revealed, in a process evoking a brisk dip in molten gold.

The naval collisions and melees play out in panel-like renderings that are bold and satisfying for the first half-hour but lack the momentum and bombastic "je ne sais quoi" of "300." Someone was also apparently worried that the film’s depth of field wouldn’t come across, judging from the ubiquitous particles suspended in the air, as if some unseen Greek had just dusted. (The director, Noam Murro, who has primarily specialized in commercials, took over from Zack Snyder this time. Snyder wrote the screenplay with Kurt Johnstad from Frank Miller’s graphic novel "Xerxes.")

Strategically speaking, the Greeks’ underdog maneuvers work, until they don’t, while the Persians are unstoppable, until they aren’t. Themistokles supplies a politician’s skeptical perspective on the Spartans, while a brave father-son duo serve to personalize the notion of self-sacrifice with regular check-ins.

It might also be added that the film arrives at a somewhat different, less freshly besieged era than "300," released in 2007. But the political climate might matter less than the over-the-top example of faux period excess provided by several seasons of "Game of Thrones."

That show’s bedroom maneuvers might have influenced a pivotal scene in which the long, rivalrous gazes across the sea between Themistokles and Artemisia lead to their finally getting a room. In the telling aftermath, the ruthless Persian commander is more or less recast as a woman scorned, ultimately leaving Greece, and everyone’s machismo, mostly intact.

Review by Nicholas Rapold, New York Times

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