As much performance art as movie, "300: Rise of an Empire" unfolds as beautiful, bloody, slow-motion machismo. Torsos bared, swords flashing, another 300 rock the leather skirts and loincloths with pounding, passionate music perfectly underscoring this latest round of the "beautiful death" the ancient Greeks were so poetic about.
Though it is hard to replicate the freshness of the first, "Rise" is almost as visually stunning as 2006's "300," when Gerard Butler as King Leonidas sacrificed Sparta's finest abs in a no-win battle against the Persian god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). This time, there is more to it than scantily clad men mud wrestling to hone their battle skills. A female demands the right to bear arms, and bare breasts. Artemisia (Eva Green) is as fierce and brave as any man, and she's dressed to kill.
Zack Snyder, who directed the first, remains a guiding force in "Rise," writing the script with Kurt Johnstad. Director Noam Murro continues the arresting design ethos of "300," which took its visual cues from graphic novelist Frank Miller, on whose work the films are based. The freeze-framing of blood spurting and heads rolling is amped up significantly, allowing much more time for the audience to absorb — appreciate? — the gore.
Based on another story idea from Miller, "Rise" picks a different battle that unfolds around the same time as "300's" Thermopylae clash at the Hot Gates. This one is by sea and led by the slightly less buff but more philosophical Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), an Athenian naval general and part-time politician.
Xerxes is technically still the nemesis. We get a look at his before-and-after, how a trip to an evil spa in the mountains turned him into Persia's golden boy with shimmery skin, impressive piercings and to-die-for bling. But Xerxes is more of a poser in "Rise," often asked to look god-like at a discreet distance.
The one to watch is Artemisia, and not just because Green gets the best costumes — leather and chainmail has rarely been as fetching — but because her character is as tactical a warrior as Themistokles, and she has a grudge to match.
Some of the "300" are back for "Rise," most notably Leonidas wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey). She is also the film's narrator, making sure we don't get confused with all the Thems and Therms.
That a narrator is necessary to walk us through the complexities might suggest there's a problem with the script. There is. For all of its hyper-realized visuals, "Rise of an Empire" is a very talkie film. The Queen not only explains Themistokles' push for a unification of the Greek city-states but Sparta's isolationist's stance, Persia's desire for dominance, Artemisia's difficult Greek adolescence, her unexpected allegiance to Persian King Darius, King Darius' death, Xerxes' rise. And I haven't even mentioned all the ruminations on fathers and sons, the price of democracy, the pain of war, etc., etc., etc.
It's not that Headey isn't a fine storyteller; the actress is actually quite good at bringing Greek mythology to life. But the film relies on her so much that it is sometimes a shock when a character actually speaks. And sometimes when they do speak, you understand why the filmmaker keeps turning to Headey. A particularly embarrassing democracy debate comes to mind — in addition to its windy pontificating, Themistokles and his cohorts are put in red togas, which are frankly not flattering in any light.
Fortunately Themistokles regains his manhood by the time he is needed for the sex scene with Artemisia. Fueled by his-and-her rage that quickly leads to the ripping of clothes and some serious sword play along with the foreplay, the scene represents a high or low, depending on your point of view.
Still, you couldn't ask for a more magnetic villain than Green, whose fight choreography is incredible. Opposite that force field, Stapleton is not quite as commanding. He's better on his own, with his men, on the high seas.
Those skirmishes are truly a tribute to the power of visual effects, the skill of cinematographer Simon Duggan and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos' creative reinvention of period details.
The spectacularly brutal fighting is the film's main calling card, and in that "Rise of an Empire" doesn't disappoint. Still, in the battle for best guilty pleasure, I'd give it to the Spartans of "300," by a head.
'300: Rise of an Empire'
MPAA rating: R for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: In general release