A largely unnecessary prequel/parallequel/sequel (which actually happens before, during and after the events of the first film) that departs in quite a few ways from the first.
300: Rise of an Empire follow the campaigns of Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), an Athenian general as he wages war against the seemingly unstoppable might of the Persian war machine's navy as King Leonidas' Spartans hold the Hot Gates against the land forces. Themistocles finds his match in Xerxes' unhinged naval commander, a traitorous Greek named Artemisia (Eva Green), as he tries to unite Greece to fight as one force against the Persian empire.
All the hallmarks of what made the first film great are present, but are either somewhat lacking or undermined by some other aspect of the film.
To give Rise of an Empire its credit though, it does look good. The stylish and slick action sequences that comprise most of the film, ducking in and out of super-slo-mo as they go, do look excellent and the same crazy excess that made the first look so good carries over. The only issue I would take with the look and visual of this installment is the colour. Where the red and gold filters of the first sat well with the visuals of the blood and glory themes, Rise of an Empire is very cold and blue. In an attempt to match the seas on which they fight for most of the film and it loses something with that. CGI blood just doesn't look as engaging when it's closer to black that red.
The biggest problem is the spot on the testosterone-fuelled blood and guts meter that the first hit so sweetly. In 300, the central characters are the Spartans: a warrior people to whom death in battle is the ultimate goal and the glory of the fight is all that matters. Led by the charismatic and ultra-masculine leader Leonidas, the ultra violence and super-glamorisation of the combat and the money shots of heads taking leave of their necks, it all makes sense then because that's what the Spartans are all about. But with Themistocles and the Athenians, everything is a little bit more political. They fight for freedom and ideals rather than just for the glory of themselves and the fight, so the gratuitousness and pleasure taken by the film makers in the violence just feels a little out of place.
So it would be fair to say that the problem is the lack of a King Leonidas. The lack of someone charismatic and crazy enough to make sense and function in the world that Zack Snyder created is the downfall. Except it's not. Because 300: Rise of an Empire has this crazy bastard at its heart:
Eva Green nails the character of Artemisia so hard you could pin a Greek skull to a ship's mast with her performance. She has that crazy, obscene and just plain terrifying quality that's just brilliantly ridiculous and could only exist in such a comic-book influenced world. She has this swaggering walk and talk that had me convinced I wanted the Persians to just steamroll the Greeks and all their moping about freedom and democracy along with them. When you put Artemisia's absurdity next to Themistocles' maudlin moaning, all of his scenes just feel like distractions from the scenes with the more fun character.
If you seek out Rise of an Empire, don't expect much. It's still stylish and fun, but not as much as the first. Eva Green stands out as a shining light of craziness in a cast that's taking itself a bit too seriously considering there's a perfectly waxed 8 foot tall guy wandering around in his pants declaring himself a god king.