By Jeff Labrecque
Updated March 07, 2014 at 03:55 PM EST

The first 300 was an uncompromising paean to glorious graphic-novel imagery, infused with music-video sensibility and CGI magic. Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s bloody tale, which chronicles the Spartans’ noble defeat at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., splattered the box office in 2007, grossing $201.6 million and making Gerard Butler’s abs more famous than Gerard Butler. 300: Rise of the Empire is a prequel, sequel, and side-quel to that tale.

Butler’s King Leonidas is dead, but Athens’ general Themistokles (Strike Back‘s Sullivan Stapleton) rallies the fractured Greeks at sea against the invading Persian armada, led by Artemisia, a vengeful Greek orphan played with relish by Eva Green. The pre-se-side-quel explains her defection to the Persians, as well as her stepbrother’s (Rodrigo Santoro) transformation from heir to the throne into the giant golden god Xerxes after his father is killed in battle.

Snyder co-wrote the script, but he handed the camera to Noam Murro, a commercial actor who also directed Smart People. That 2008 dramedy, starring Dennis Quaid and Ellen Page, was short on decapitations and homo-eroticism, but he’s clearly up to speed on both for this assignment. “Murro uses 3-D to up the wow factor even further [than Snyder’s razzle-dazzle Spartan bloodfest],” writes EW’s Chris Nashawaty. “There’s so much crimson gore flying off the screen you feel as if you should be wearing a tarp like the folks in the front row of a Gallagher show.”

To paraphrase Leonidas, “This! Is! SPARTA!… Sorta.” Same splashy violence, with a dash of S&M that will surely land Green multiple MTV Movie Award nominations. Click below to see what some of the nation’s leading film critics are saying about Rise of an Empire before heading to the theater.

Chris Nashawaty (Entertainment Weekly)

“But really, the film belongs to Green — maybe the only actress ever to ‘graduate’ from being a Bertolucci muse to a bloodthirsty action-flick dominatrix. With her raven hair, smoky voice, and leather fetish wear, she gooses the repetitive carnage into something deliciously sinister.”

Nicolas Rapold (New York Times)

“Classical historians disagree, but it was probably Herodotus who first posed a question that would ring out across the ages, unanswered till now: Wouldn’t Eva Green look awesome kissing the severed head of an insolent captive?”

Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter)

“Other than for the pleasure of watching Green try to conquer ancient Greece dressed as a distant forebearer of Catwoman, more is less and a little late in this long-aborning sequel to the 2007 bloodbath…”

Ty Burr (Boston Globe)

“Basically, if the first 300 was a pep-talk from Coach on how to lose with dignity, Rise of an Empire is an inspirational speech on the value of teamwork. Delivered by an assistant coach, actually, since original director Zack Snyder has been replaced by Noam Murro. … And, really, the movie’s mostly about kicking butt.”

Ann Hornaday (Washington Post) ▼

“A series of smashing, crashing seafaring set pieces interrupted by variations on Henry V’s Crispin’s Day speech … this chapter is a dull, monochromatic affair… When the film isn’t sloppily directed, it’s a series of lazy filmmaking tics, including fetishistic slow-motion shots of blood, water and sweat…”

Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times) ▲

“Stapleton’s just fine as the male lead, though he lacks Gerard Butler’s animalistic screen presence, and he seems overmatched in certain scenes — especially in one of the wildest and almost hilariously aggressive sex scenes we’ve seen in an R-rated movie in some time.”

David Hiltbrand (Philadelphia Inquirer)

“Themistokles’ troops may not be trained. They’re ‘a bunch of farmers . . . and poets and sculptors.’ But it’s obvious they haven’t let their gym memberships lapse. They look a lot more like Macho Man Randy Savage than they do Robert Frost.”

Betsy Sharkey (Los Angeles Times)

“That a narrator is necessary to walk us through the complexities might suggest there’s a problem with the script. There is. For all of its hyper-realized visuals, Rise of an Empire is a very talkie film. … But the film relies on [Lena Headey] so much that it is sometimes a shock when a character actually speaks.”

Mark Jenkins (NPR) ▼

“If the movie’s action recalls video games, the dramatically artificial lighting suggests 1980s rock videos. Indeed, Rise of an Empire is so campy that it might work better as a musical. All those topless Greek hunks could sing, ‘I’m too sexy for my shirt’…”

Scott Foundas (Variety)

“Murro favors a somewhat faster, messier look than the first 300 … and a minimum of the super slow-motion that gave 300’s battle scenes their dreamy, ethereal air. And when it comes to blood, of which there will be plenty, Murro’s is darker, thicker and gloppier than Snyder’s bright-red pointillist splays.”

Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle)

“Trying to out-Zack Zack, [Murro] replaces Snyder’s rose petals with gushes of blood and muted colors with murk. 300: Rise of an Empire becomes a succession of battle scenes, filmed in tight medium shots, so that all you see is commotion. If you want to know who’s winning, the only way to tell is to see which general is smiling.”

300: Rise of an Empire

Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 48

Rotten Tomatoes: 44 percent

Rated: R

Length: 103 minutes

Director: Noam Murro

Starring Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro

Distributor: Warner Bros.

300: Rise of an Empire

  • Movie
  • R
  • 103 minutes
  • Noam Murro