King Leonidas slipped into legend at the Battle of Thermopylae, martyred with 300 Spartans for the sake of Western civilization and Spartan glory.
"Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by/ That here, obedient to their laws, we lie," poet Simonides of Ceos wrote.
So it was too much to hope that someone with Gerard Butler's charismatic, bellowing swagger would be around for the sequel to his star turn in the 2006 movie 300. His Leonidas and his oiled-down eight-pack are sorely missed in 300: Rise of an Empire, as are the quotable quatrains of that famous fight, the Spartan trash talk that sings through the ages. So many Persian arrows will rain on them that they will "blot out the sun"?
"Then we shall fight in the shade."
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There's nothing that moving in Rise of an Empire, a more visually stunning but less thrilling epic and with bloodier slow-motion swordfights, this time at sea. It lacks the heroic proportions and poetry of 300, mainly thanks to a less impressive cast and a murky, forgettable script.
Sullivan Stapleton (Gangster Squad) is Themistokles, the Greek general who took to heart the oracle's prophecy that Greece could be saved only "by a wall of wood" (i.e., ships) and fought the enormous Persian fleet at Artemisium and Salamis. That prophecy, by the way, isn't shown — a clever and quotably theatrical moment discarded as Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) relates this oral history.
The movie opens at the end of Thermopylae, flashes back to the earlier Battle of Marathon, then flashes forward to the fictive present as Themistokles rallies the city states and prepares for battle at sea as Leonidas marches to his fate at Thermopylae.
The Persian fleet is led by the fictional she-devil Artemisia, played by onetime Bond babe Eva Green, a seductive sword-fighter in jet-black hair, Egyptian eye makeup and ancient Persian fishnet stockings. She purrs about "the ecstasy of steel" and demands of her admirals, "Is it too much to ask for victory?"
The clever Greeks foil her and crush her huge war galleys at every turn.
Things get so bad that Artemisia summons Themistokles for a mid- Aegean parlay. Things turn so hot and heavy there that Themistokles has to teach her a little Latin: coitus interruptus.
Director Noam Murro did the college professor romance Smart People, in no way a recommendation for directing a red-blooded digital epic of an ancient sea battle. Zack Snyder, who directed the original film, had a hand in the tin-eared script. It's not graphic-novel creator Frank Miller's fault that Thermopylae, the basis for his 300 book, made for more elegiac history than Salamis.
But the design — a sea of grays and whites covered with heaving digital black ships and black sails and black-clad Persians battling Greeks in tiny brown boats — is stunning, an improvement over 300.
The action never disappoints.
It's a pity this colorless cast doesn't hold a candle to the original's crew of Butler, Headey, Michael Fassbender and David Wenham, that the writers couldn't conjure up thrilling speeches to match the original.
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that these pretenders spoiled their franchise, and here their movie lies.