Stylistically, 300: Rise of an Empire has all the hallmarks of its testosterone-fueled Spartan predecessor: oversaturated, chiaroscuro photography throughout for an out-of-this-world, comic book feel; copious amounts of blood spraying cartoonishly with each well-placed spear thrust; fight sequences alternating frenetically between real-time sword swinging and super-slow-motion limb lopping. Indeed, there was even more gore and slow-down, speed-up action in this second chapter of Greek mayhem. Aside from the superb cosmetic elements — courtesy of DP Simon Duggan, editors David Brenner and Wyatt Smith, and visual effects supervisors Richard Hollander and John Desjardin — you’d be hard-pressed to find many redeeming qualities to Empire, though.

It’d be unfair to totally lambaste the film, because we go into the theater with the educated assumption that director Noam Murro will serve up blockbuster brawls chock-full of warriors with muscles on top of muscles knocking the stuffing out of each other, and perhaps a little promiscuity sprinkled in for good measure. And superhuman muscles, combat, and sex are present in abundance (I promise you that the late-night love romp in particular will be hard to forget). In short, the entertainment value is there. But story-wise, Empire fails in the areas 300 capitalized on with such success, namely the establishment of larger-than-life characters, a balanced mix of macho badass-ness and brief moments of wry humor, and a captivating, well-paced plot.

The screenplay, based on Frank Miller’s not-yet-released graphic novel Xerxes and tag-teamed by returning duo Zack Snyder (300’s director) and Kurt Johnstad, has the war drum beating loudly from the get-go. Except this time the carnage takes place at sea, and the Spartans are nudged to the periphery. Athenian politician and General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), a demigod of sorts among his Hellenic brethren for felling the Persian king Darius (Igal Naor) at the Battle of Marathon, leads a vastly outnumbered fleet against Persia’s whale of a navy. The parallel story arc takes place before, during and after Leonidas’ martyred stand against the Persian horde at Thermopylae, culminating in the famed Battle of Salamis. Empire even opens with a drawn-out “history” lesson as to how the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) became…well, a god-king. Apparently, stepping into a pool of golden mystery liquid gives you a deep-throated grumble, super-inflated ego, and an overabundance of body jewelry.

As anticipated, there’s plenty of dick swinging and chest pounding in this sequel, but it changes things up by pitting a fierce female antagonist — the Greek-turned-Persian naval commander Artemisia (Casino Royale Bond girl Eva Green) — against Themistocles’ seadogs. That’s not to say that the film’s virility dwindles at all, though, because this woman’s as bad as they come. “She has sold her soul to death himself,” one man utters of her. If that’s true, and it very well could be, Artemisia sure doesn’t try to hide it. She has a personality as brackish and rough as the sea she sails on and has a nasty penchant for punishing subordinates that fail to deliver on their promises. And she’s not averse to planting a passionate smooch on the severed head of an unfortunate victim, still oozing blood from the neck. Revenge is an invisible but tangible plot-driver in Empire — Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) for the fallen King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), Xerxes for his father Darius — but fuels Artemisia’s fiery repulsion most markedly. Getting orphaned, raped and enslaved by Grecians as a young girl would tend to put a massive chip on anyone’s shoulder — it’s the reason the Greek-born Artemisia converts to the Persian cause.

Ultimately, her strengths couldn’t make up for a weak masculine hero in Themistocles. By weak, I don’t mean physical deficiency, because the guy is stacked like a New York deli sandwich and is renowned as one of the best fighters from the city-states. However, he’s just not the stuff of myth and doesn’t have the Leonidas-like command on screen. To be frank, Themistocles is almost boring by comparison. Stapleton could certainly have brought much more bite to the performance to equal his raspy bark.

Even if the Aussie had, though, it wouldn’t have been enough to overcome a lot of lazy writing on the part of Snyder and Johnstad. Memorable lines (Leonidas’ guttural “This is Sparta!” comes to mind) are a surefire way to inflate the esteem an audience harbors for a character, and this script is almost as bare as a half-naked Greek soldier. Like in 300, we’re meant to buy into the steadfast camaraderie of the army’s principal leaders, forged over countless battles fought side by side, but sloppy character development lends to supposed best friends coming across as no more than casual wartime acquaintances. Coupled with some clunky exposition, over-ridiculous scenarios (leading a charge on a horse while at sea, really?) and battles that seemed to bleed into one another without much distinction or idiosyncrasy between them, everything was left feeling rather unfulfilled. I mean, there are only so many times ships can ram each other without it becoming monotonous.

And this is where a directorial credit for 300 mastermind Snyder may have shored up the quality of the picture. (The Wisconsin native, known for flicks like Watchmen and Dawn of the Dead, was busy working on last year’s Superman reboot Man of Steel). Murro was an interesting choice as point man, both thematically and experience-wise — prior to Empire, he’d only directed 2008’s Smart People (a dramedy starring Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker) and the TV short HBO Imagine (2009). Overall, the 53-year-old Israeli succumbed to the pitfalls of so many other filmmakers looking to capture the prequel’s magic. In trying to do too much, he effectively achieved too little and pigeonholed the production into the realm of mediocrity. Ironically, the film need only have been a bit more spartan to be a success.

Rating: 1.5 out of 4 stars

Video Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Cincopa WordPress plugin

Featured image: Eva Green as Artemisia in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “300: Rise of an Empire,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. Copyright: © 2014 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND LEGENDARY PICTURES FUNDING, LLC.