A long-rumoured, long-delayed follow-up, 2014’s 300: Rise of an Empire arrives seven years after Zack Snyder’s breakout graphic novel adaptation grossed an absolute mint at the global box office. More a companion piece than a straight sequel, Rise tells a parallel story which takes place before, during and after the events of the 2007 flick, shedding light on the naval aspect of the war between the Greeks and the Persians. Although Snyder relinquished the director’s chair this time around, he nevertheless produced and co-wrote Rise, loosely basing the screenplay on the as-yet unpublished Frank Miller graphic novel Xerxes (itself a sequel to his 300 graphic novel). The new director here is Noam Murro, tasked with mimicking Snyder’s style without coming off as a cheap copycat. Thankfully, Murro fast finds his footing, resulting in an often organic-feeling second instalment that has its own voice. Thrilling and entertaining, it’s an unapologetically manly movie, the first must-see actioner of 2014.

With King Leonidas (played by Gerard Butler in the original flick) preparing to battle the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) prepares to defend Greece by sea. Leading the Persian navy is ruthless commander Artemisia (Eve Green), who was also responsible for Xerxes’ transformation from mere mortal to super-being. Themistokles hopes for a united Greece in order to face off against the Persian invaders, but Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey) refuses to join forces, instead trusting in Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans to defend their city. With Artemisia’s army outnumbering Themistokles’ men, he endeavours to rely on strategy and brutality to fight for their freedom, no matter the cost.

Written by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad (who also contributed to the original film), the storytelling of Rise is all over the place, and that’s putting it mildly. It’s simultaneously a prequel and a sequel to 300, while most of the narrative runs in parallel to its predecessor. It’s an uneasy proposition, and unfortunately it doesn’t always work, with some of the flashbacks running so long that the flow of the picture is majorly disrupted. Rise is hugely convoluted, tackling too much material considering that the appeal of 300 is boobs, blood and gore. Added to this, the majority of the male characters are completely one-dimensional, blending into one another and lacking distinctive character traits. Snyder’s picture wasn’t a profound drama, but the main Spartan players were distinguishable from one another, a characteristic not retained for this endeavour.

Considering Murro’s only other feature film credit is 2008’s uninvolving misfire Smart People, the director was an unlikely choice to orchestrate this orgy of R-rated ultra-violence and sexuality. He was also tapped to direct the fifth Die Hard movie before electing to helm Rise of an Empire instead. Who the hell saw any of that coming? Although the deck was stacked firmly against him, Murro ably proves his worth as an action filmmaker, staging a multitude of hugely entertaining set-pieces which benefit from superlative choreography and gorgeous visuals. Snyder’s stylised digital recreation of Miller’s comic panels was the defining aspect of 2007’s 300, and Murro follows suit, using desaturated colours and slow motion to nice effect. The scope of Snyder’s original feature was restricted, but Rise feels much larger with its scenes of ocean combat, and it’s often hard to tell where the sets end and the CGI begins. Although this reviewer did not view the picture in 3D, it seems like a smart fit for the format.

Retaining the R-rating of its predecessor, Rise of an Empire is a monumentally violent effort, with scores of blood and viscera thrown all over the screen with reckless abandon. There are numerous tracking shots throughout the big action sequences, observing the visceral effects of sharp blades against human skin in slo-mo. Murro’s work is ferocious, and his camera never baulks from capturing graphic displays of bodily harm, set to a pounding score courtesy of Junkie XL. It’s very over-the-top as well, but in a fun sense; Murro even throws in a horse galloping across ships, and sea creatures swallowing fallen men in the water, retaining a healthy sense of the fantastical to ensure we never mistake this for a proper history lesson. But while the film’s violence pushes NC-17 boundaries, and there is nudity and sex to boot, Rise remains orderly and often gorgeous to observe. Framing is sophisticated and the flick was clearly assembled with a sure hand, boasting top-flight technical specs across the board. If there’s anything to criticise, it’s the digital bloodshed. It’s effective from time to time, but on other occasions it looks distractingly phoney, and not in a stylised sense like the original movie. There is still an immense visceral punch to the action, but the blood effects simply look too cheap, and superior craftsmanship in this aspect could’ve yielded a stronger experience.

As Themistokles, Stapleton is a decent performer who acquits himself respectably, but he lacks the presence of Gerard Butler, whose authoritative, loud performance in Snyder’s movie rendered him a memorable protagonist. Picking up most of the slack is Green as Artemisia, relishing the chance to play a menacing villain. It’s ultimately her who runs away with the movie; she hams it up with glee, and is given all of the best one-liners. Reprising his role of Xerxes, Santoro is fine once again, though he’s given a lot less to do for this go-round. Butler reportedly chose not to feature in the sequel, though Leonidas does appear beyond archive footage from the original movie. Likely a stand-in with a digital makeover, the result is incredibly awkward, with Leonidas saying absolutely nothing. On a more positive note, David Wenham returns here, and his performance is robust, while Headey makes a strong impression as Queen Gorgo.

300: Rise of an Empire concludes in an extremely open-ended fashion, leaving plenty of room for a third instalment if the box office is as bountiful this time around. Despite its abrupt ending, the movie is nevertheless an enjoyable sit, the very definition of a big-screen spectacle. It’s goofy to extremes, with cheesy one-liners and hilariously over-the-top kills, but the enterprise is played with the right amount of sincerity to prevent it from descending into a dumb self-parody. Rise is not as good as its predecessor but it’s definitely a worthwhile follow-up, skilfully delivering the type of stuff that fans of the original will come looking for.