Audiences were torn asunder over "300," the 2007 over-the-top bloodletting set against the (largely fictionalized) backdrop of the Battle of Thermopylae -- including me. The sober critic found it a transcendently silly movie, but my inner 15-year-old thought it cool beyond reasoning.
The entirely unnecessary sequel picks things up where they left off ... well, to be more accurate, it picks up 10 year prior to Spartan King Leonidas' brave, doomed stand with 300 men against the entire Persian army, then it flips to slightly before, and then slightly after, that battle. Part of the new film's fatal downfall is we're never quite sure how what we're seeing relates to the greater conflict.
Set largely at sea, "300: Rise of an Empire" features much of the stylized action of its predecessor, with men cutting each other apart in slow-mo, beautiful ribbons of crimson blood arcing toward the camera.
(For extra exposure to the spurting and squirting, see it in 3-D. Or don't.)
But it lacks any of the visceral punch of the original, and certainly has no figure to match with Gerard Butler's commanding Leonidas. The dastardly 8-foot-tall god/king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is back, briefly, but following a pithy origin story he exists mostly in the backdrop while his pet general, Artemisia (Eva Green), takes the fight to the Greeks with her armada of 1,000 ships.
Sullivan Stapleton is our stalwart stand-in as Themistocles, an Athenian general who (according to the prologue) slew Xerxes' father in an old battle, and now must unite the fractious city-states of Greece into a free nation and face down the invading horde.
Of course, it soon becomes personal between the opposing leaders, with the slithery Artemisia supplied a frightening backstory about an epic wrong committed against her by Greek soldiers. Themistocles is more mysterious, a charismatic but solitary leader -- and apparently a chaste one, too, preparing monk-like his entire life for this great battle.
In keeping with the franchise's signature mix of goofiness and self-seriousness, the pair enjoy a bedding before their inevitable showdown that's somehow even more violent than when they're playing with swords.
Previous director Zack Snyder, who seemed harmonically in tune with Frank Miller's lusty graphic novel, returns here as producer and co-screenwriter (with Kurt Johnstad). New director Noam Murro, whose only other feature film credit is the comedy "Smart People," lacks Snyder's primeval feel for the material, so that even the many beheadings and eviscerations are curiously flat and emotionless. It's like watching a butcher cleave lifeless flesh.
The first "300" also had a more fantastical element, with a pantheon of supernatural creatures filling out Xerxes' horde. Here, it's pretty much workaday guys trading spears and arrows from the decks of their ships, then switching to swords after they ram and grapple. Though once again, somehow every single Greek soldier boasts washboard abs. (The ancients were into cutting carbs and stomach crunches, don'cha know.)
"300: Rise of an Empire" kept the silliness of the original film but lost all its glorious verve. The combatants carve each other up prodigiously, but the mayhem carries no sting. It's got all the blood, but none of the guts.