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'300: Rise of an Empire' review: Spears duller than Britney

* (out of four)

Once upon a time, apparently before the invention of chest hair, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton of Cinemax's "Strike Back") led the Greeks against the Persians. The latter were commanded by Artemisia (Eva Green of "Dark Shadows"), a woman seeking vengeance against those who murdered her family and imprisoned her to be raped by slaves. In the recent, stupid "Pompeii," Milo's (Kit Harington) quest to avenge his family made him the hero. So I'm not sure why Artemisia, who has suffered even further, is the villain in this long-delayed, ultra-violent sequel to the moronic 2007 hit "300." Yes, she's more into beheadings than Themistocles and his Athenian warriors -- supposed farmhands so miraculously skilled that their victims' gushing blood never splatters their garments. But otherwise director Noam Murro (the awful "Smart People") and co-writer Zack Snyder (opting not to direct this time) offer little reason to favor either army.

Other aspects of this punishing experience I fail to understand include: why Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) emerges from a golden cove not just a god, but a heavily pierced, chain-covered underwear model sporting tighty-goldies; why Themistocles doesn't just finish the job if he immediately regrets killing Xerxes' father instead of the son standing two feet away; and why a studio would release a movie in 3-D IMAX when it only looks uglier and phonier on a bigger screen.

Perhaps it's to showcase all the pecs in capes, or shots of boobs so gratuitous that one outrageous sex scene is likely to make history books burst into flames. Granted, the humorless "300: ROAE" comes from a graphic novel by Frank Miller ("Sin City"), so no one expects a history lesson. But hopefully fans of sword-and-sandal epics want more than fourth-rate battles and speeches, followed by more battles and then more speeches.

We also are treated to slow-motion charging, slow-motion horseback riding and slow-motion jumping, along with lovely shots of a horse hoof smashing a guy's face and enough severed heads to start a football team. Narration from Spartan queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) jumbles rather than clarifies -- though it's a good thing she notes that soldiers make the waters run "red with blood," to avoid confusion with Hawaiian Punch.

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