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Movie Review - ‘300: Rise of an Empire’

Sulivan Stapleton as Themistokles in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure ‘300: Rise of an Empire.’ (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)
Sulivan Stapleton as Themistokles in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure ‘300: Rise of an Empire.’ (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

If the 1996 comedy “Multiplicity” taught us anything, other than moviegoers preferred Michael Keaton in smaller doses, it’s that a copy is infinitely inferior to the original.

“300: Rise of an Empire,” though, so slavishly re-creates the original, it feels like one of those quickie, direct-to-DVD cash grabs that somehow took seven years to surface.

Rodrigo Santoro is back as Xerxes. Lena Headey returns as Queen Gorgo. And, because the events of “Rise of an Empire” take place alongside “300’s” Battle of Thermopylae, the new version even incorporates footage of Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas, Michael Fassbender’s Stelios and others, “Bourne Legacy”-style.

Like the first one, there’s a stifling amount of narration as well as nudity for no good reason.

There’s also the same disregard for accents. In the original, Butler did little to cover his Scottish burr. Here, as Greek general Themistokles, Aussie actor Sullivan Stapleton shows nearly as little regard for dialects as he does in Cinemax’s “Strike Back.”

Limbs are lost, heads are separated from their owners and Costco-sized drums of blood are spilled.

And, as in its predecessor, so many of the fight scenes unfurl in slow motion that at regular speed, the movie would barely break an hour.

It’s basically just “300,” now with boats!

In “300: Now With Boats!,” while an offscreen Leonidas is tying up the Persian army, Themistokles takes on the Persian navy, led by commander Artemisia (Eva Green), who must have discovered Leonidas’ hidden stash of eyeliner somewhere along the way.

Born in Greece, Artemisia watched as her family was slaughtered by Greeks, then she was abducted and brutalized for years in the belly of a Greek slave ship before being taken in by Persia’s King Darius (Igal Naor). Under his fancy roof, she was trained to be a great warrior in sessions that feel like they’re laying the groundwork for a nice little girl-power drama on The CW.

On his deathbed, Darius warns his son, Xerxes, that the Greeks cannot be defeated by mortals. A power-hungry Artemisia convinces Xerxes that statement wasn’t meant as a deterrent but as a challenge, and that Xerxes should set out to become a god.

So Xerxes wanders the desert for a bit, staggers into a cave, wades into a pool and emerges hairless, nearly naked and a couple of feet taller, with a voice that would make Barry White sound like a castrato and enough piercings to look as though he stumbled face-first into a pile of fishhooks.

The way that back stories fly around “Rise of an Empire,” you’d swear Oprah Winfrey was doling them out to a studio audience. “You get a back story! And you get a back story! And, wait, not so fast, Themistokles.”

For the supposed star of the movie, viewers never learn much about the Greek general. Themistokles killed Darius a decade ago at Marathon and wishes he’d finished off Xerxes then while he had the chance, long before the king’s son ever checked into the Little Persepolis Magic God-King Day Spa.

Sure, we’re spared the unsettling “300” prologue, detailing how Leonidas was ripped from his mother’s arms as a 7-year-old and cast out into a world of starvation and Itty Bitty Fight Clubs to make him a warrior. But the only reason to root for Themistokles is because we’ve been conditioned to. Themistokles is no Leonidas, and Leonidas was pretty one-note to begin with.

But at least we know something about him. Themistokles’ three most trusted allies might as well be named Guy With Kid, Kid and Cut-Rate Jared Leto.

As a scenery-chewing villainess, though, Green is captivating. If “300” writer-director Zack Snyder hadn’t already established the Persians as the bad guys, she’d make a far more interesting hero than that swaggering doofus Themistokles. (Snyder was too busy mucking up Superman to helm this one, so he turned those duties over to Noam Murro. However, Snyder did pen the script along with “300” co-writer Kurt Johnstad.)

But there’s still something troubling about hearing grown men cheer when the “hero” punches a woman square in the face, no matter how villainous she’s made out to be.

“Rise of an Empire” likely won’t find many fans outside that meathead demographic, though.

The only things people really seemed to enjoy about the original were the special effects and Gerard Butler’s abs, which looked like special effects.

And although both of those were truly surprising at the time, now that everyone’s seen them, the only thing surprising about “Rise of an Empire” is the unrelenting sameness of it all.

* * *

Contact Las Vegas Review-Journal movie critic Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com

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