Nothing makes ‘Empire’ rise above mediocrity

March 16, 2014
Sullivan Stapleton plays Themistokles in "300: Rise Of An Empire." SOURCE WARNER BROS. PICTURES

The original “300” is often lauded by its fans for its striking visuals and stylistic endeavors. It is also noted equally for its heaping serving of beefcake, in which the actors resemble more of a Men’s Health magazine come to life than actual Greek soldiers.

Its director, Zack Snyder, may have received credit for its look, but he’s consistently proven himself to be a hack of the highest order, fumbling not one, but two major film projects (“Watchmen” and “Man of Steel”). So the fact that he’s not behind the camera of the sequel/sidebar story, “300: Rise of an Empire” was really of no consequence. Filling in is untested newbie Noah Munro. But let’s face it, with its heavy reliance on CGI, an iPad could have been programmed to direct these films.

Character names aside, the source material is far from any history book, but rather an as-yet-to-be-released graphic novel from Frank Miller. The tale is somewhat concurrent to the original Athens-based flick, and should really begin with “Meanwhile!… Down the Road in Thermopylae!...”

General Themistokles (played by Sullivan Stapleton) and his band of Bowflexed warriors are getting greased up to spill much computer-generated blood with the fabulous-looking golden god Xerxes (played by Rodrigo Santoro). There’s much animosity, as Themistokles fired the arrow that pierced Xerxes’ papa a decade ago.

If you are a fan of the original, I suspect you will find just as much to admire here, as it’s essentially more of the same: greased-up guys who look like they entered scenes after just completing a crunch class; slow-motion, high-definition carnage; and all the digitally enhanced backdrops the budget will allow.

The one improvement here is costar Eva Green as the leader of the Persian troops, whose campy presence almost makes this insufferable mess worthy of watching. Dolled up in dominatrix gear and prone to dropping an F-bomb here and there (I may be rusty in my linguistics, but I’m pretty sure that word hadn’t even been invented for about another few centuries), Green crashes this sausage-fest and has lip-licking fun with her moments of screen time.

She’s the only one who seems to shed some levity in this overly self-serious flick.

Too often, “Empire” raids its limited bag of tricks of heavy-handed battle sequences in which action is sloooooooowed down only to speed up at moments of impact. I suspect that the 112-minute runtime could be halved if the flick ran at normal speed. But like the gym rat who has to look at himself in the mirror after every rep, it slows things down so it can appreciate itself.

I never thought I would lament an absence of Gerard Butler (who played Leonidas in the original), but lead Stapleton could have benefited from some CGI to add charisma, as his battle cries have the impact of a Nerf sword.

Aside from Green’s presence, there is nothing that makes this “Empire” rise above mediocrity.