Even with a change in directors and a half-enlightened, half-salacious emphasis on the voracious Persian conqueror played by Eva Green, 300: Rise of an Empire hews closely to the look, vibe and the casualty count of its sleekly schlocky 2007 predecessor, helmed by Zack Snyder.
Likewise taken from a Frank Miller graphic novel, the sequel chronicles mighty Grecian battles regarding who’s going to get to use the workout equipment first. This is the genre of abs and pecs and arrows in the eye in slow motion, with geysers of globby blood floating around, prettily and painlessly, for our gamer-style delectation.
Midway through the film, Green’s Artemisia—former sex slave and commander of the Persian fleet intent on leveling the freedom-loving Grecian upstarts—invites the stalwart Gen. Themistokles, played by a truly dull Sullivan Stapleton, over to her place so that he might study her battle figurines. “Welcome to my humble barge,” she says, in a come-on line we’ve all heard at some point in our lives. She really wants him in That Way, if only to take her mind off the Battle of Thermopylae for a while. But after some rough foreplay and rougher midplay, any hint of an afterglow is ruined by the general’s unwillingness to betray his men and join her side. It was the arrow loosed by Themistokles once upon a time that felled Artemisia’s king and mentor.
Rise of an Empire is not a movie on which to waste a good mood or a full night’s sleep. It takes care of business, one splurch at a time. In the first film, the marauding Persians and Xerxes, the godlike giant of many piercings played by Rodrigo Santoro, were treated as subhuman swarthy folk and therefore, in the 2007 film’s geopolitical universe, the slaughter was morally comfortable, easy to take. Gerard Butler’s rage carried the day. At the end of 300 the 300 lay dead, so a sequel seemed unlikely.
Then the box office reports washed in, and you know how it is with days of yore: Combine yore with gore, and you’re going to get your sequel. In Rise of an Empire, partly because Green so easily dominates the proceedings even when not bare-breasted, the Persians at least seem human. Vicious, but human. Lena Headey’s Spartan Queen Gorgo returns from the first outing, her gaze full of steely revenge and her mouth full of voice-over exposition setting up events taking place years earlier, as well as immediately after the action of 300. We learn in Rise of an Empire how the Persian king’s son Xerxes made the transition from human to Oscar statuette, gold as you please. We learn from Gorgo that someone’s eyes can actually emit “the stink of destiny.” Yes, and it takes the nose of destiny to smell it.
The film’s a series of moderately diverting battles on the roiling Aegean, at full ramming speed. The look of sophomore director Noam Murro’s picture, photographed by Great Gatsby cinematographer Simon Duggan in the original 300 film’s trademark two-tone palette, never for a second intends to impart a sense of realism. This is digital fake-ism all the way. Audiences bought it the first time; they’re likely to buy it a second time.
It wouldn’t be much without Green. There’s not much room for psychological nuance in anything created by Frank Miller. A certain queasiness attends Rise of an Empire in its mourning of brutalized innocents one second and its celebration of bloodletting the other 59. Still: Murro’s film asserts, proudly and with many beheadings, that democracy was a good idea. It was worth the strife, so that 21st-century storytellers and their effects teams might capture it a new way, in all its insanely violent, limb-lopping, stinky-destiny glory.
300: Rise of an Empire (R) ★★☆☆☆