It's hard to believe that seven years have passed since the first film in this series, "300", shocked and amazed audiences world wide. That film was a huge success, grossing over $450 million against a budget of about $60 million. "300" was one of my favorite films of 2006, so I was looking forward to this sequel.


"300: Rise of an Empire" returns Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo, albeit in a much-reduced role, and Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes, the Persian mortal who morphs into a god. King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) is gone, of course, having been killed off along with the rest of the 300 Greeks who defended the pass at Thermopylae for three days against the army hordes of Xerxes. A relatively unknown Michael Fassbender was in the cast of "300", as well.


So "Rise" picks up with a vicious female Persian warrior, and leader of their navy, Artemisia (Eva Green, "Casino Royale"), intent on over-running the Greek city-states of that era, beginning with the center of Greek culture, the great metropolis of Athens. Themistocles (Aussie actor Sullivan Stapleton) is the Athenian leader who tries desperately to unite the other city-states, particularly Athens' chief rival, Sparta, in a showdown against the invading Persians.


"300" was notable for its graphic violence, but it also told a good story. In short order we get a sample of this film's version of blood-letting, when the sensuous but dangerous Artemisia neatly severs the head of a Greek prisoner, and promptly holds it up while kissing it full on the lips.


Zack Snyder, writer/director of "300", returns as one of the scribes, leaving the directing chores to Noam Murro, who made his name directing television commercials. It's a far cry from Bud Light to bloody battle scenes, and I don't remember "300" being so brazenly brutal with its blood spilling. In every battle scene, and there are many in "Rise", the spurting blood is almost a caricature on screen. Eventually it loses its shock value as the movie progresses, so there had better be a story worthy of peoples' time.


To enjoy this sequel as much as the first, the viewer must first suspend the belief that huge, heavily-muscled, well-armed men, all flaunting six-pack abs, should be able to easily overpower fragile-looking women. With that in mind, "Rise" has a decent plot of its own, with Stapleton giving a strong performance as the beleaguered Themistocles, and Green convincing as the nasty antagonist with a penchant for lopping off heads. In one  scene, which fully establishes her reputation in the ancient world, she carries six freshly chopped heads at once. Clearly she is not someone to take lightly, plus she is an adept swordsperson.


The filmmakers toss in little tidbits of horror, as when a crow is seen plucking out the eyeball of a dead soldier. The movie's soundtrack, written by Ozzie Osbourne, among others, and performed by Black Sabbath, is sensational. It complements the beautifully dramatic cinematography of the sea, sky and land.


And "Rise" is not without humor. When Themistocles and Artemisia are heavily involved in a rather suggestive, and audible, sex scene (that 's one way to settle your differences), two armed and steel-masked guards turn to each other as if to say, "What the hell?" It's an unexpected lighter moment in an otherwise savagely depicted time in history.


Is this the end? I think not. After all, Xerxes is still lurking in the background, so look for a third film in the series. But if you're at all squeamish about buckets of blood and severed limbs, this is not for you.


Opinion: See It Now!