300: Rise of an Empire (2014)
103 min., rated R.
As a sword-and-sandals, abs-and-pecs graphic novel brought to epic life, 2007's Zack Snyder-directed "300" was hyper-stylized, visually dazzling, and gleefully bloody, reveling in its balletic, jacked-up bombast with splashes of blood and machismo. Director Noam Murro's first feature since 2008's indie comedy "Smart People," "300: Rise of an Empire" may have a new director at the reigns, but it certainly doesn't show a lack of homoerotic beefcake eye-candy, CG arterial gushing, or overblown battle sequences. Snyder isn't completely out of the picture, relegated to producer and co-adapting Frank Miller's unfinished comic "Xerxes" with the original film's Kurt Johnstad for what is more of a "sidequel" than a straight-up sequel. In the first "300," it was easier to live with the Battle of Thermopylae being retold in a heightened comic-book reality as a meathead history lesson without making any claims to be anything deep or meaningful. This time, even as it delivers on the simple prospects of seeing a ridiculously over-the-top bloodbath, there's really nothing to it.
The events of "300: Rise of an Empire" occur concurrently and near the end of its predecessor, circa 480 B.C., where Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his army of 300 Spartan warriors would fall in the Battle of Thermopylae. It's established that during the Battle of Marathon, Persian King Darius was killed by Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), witnessed by Darius' son, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). At the death bed of his father, Xerxes is manipulated by Greek-born, Persian-blooded naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) to journey to the desert, where he would bathe in a cave's otherworldly liquid and emerge as the "God-King." War is then declared on Greece, and Artemisia has a personal debt to collect. Fortunately, like the 300 Spartans, Themistokles and his Greek warriors are all hairless, shirtless, and physically defined, wrestling with each other and posing with their arms out. And these hard bodies clearly keep Gold's Gym in business.
A dismayingly inferior follow-up, "300: Rise of an Empire" is just an expendable exercise in unadulturated spectacle that would improve on Blu-ray when the owner has the power to skip around to the livelier sections. To start off, director Murro makes sure the since-influential look of "300" is alive and kicking and has no problem cloning Zack Snyder's style, both being shot primarily in front of green screens. However, the 2-D version often looks too gauzy and blurry with dust bunnies floating in many a frame. Between an entertaining, albeit repetitive and borderline-parodic, opening battle and some naval warfare on the Aegean Sea, much of the action turns into tiresome, homogenized overkill. So, when a hill of water and a galloping horse get thrown into the mix, you think, "Why the hell not?" The surface flash is pretty to look at, and the effect of digital blood splattering in slow-motion like it's crimson-colored oil is cool and fun for a while, until it feels exhausted. There are only so many ways to show swords stabbing people's bodies and arrows going into eyes, and the director slows shots down and then speeds them up, over and over. Cut it off already!
With Gerard Butler as Leonidas in the first "300," there was a magnetic presence and fire-and-brimstone bravado, leading his pack. Here, the absence of that commanding presence is felt, and while Sullivan Stapleton (Cinemax's "Strike Back") has the body, he's bland and untested for leading-man status as Themistokles. The baddies are more compelling to rally behind and have a little more backstory, anyway. The mesmerizingly gold-bodied Rodrigo Santoro, reprising his role, is given more of a chance to convey his transformation that it's kind of a disappointment there wasn't more of Xerxes, considering the source material is named after him. Dominating the film, as the wicked Artemisia whose family was raped and killed and then became an enemy of her own people, Eva Green is glorious, slithering fun to watch. She takes over every scene she is in and goes full-tilt boogie with the vamp and come-hither bedroom eyes—she even has a great time making out with a severed head. There is one scene between Stapleton and Green, a constant power play even as they engage in animalistic sex, and it might be one of the most hilariously strange bits of rough coitus since Colin Farrell and Rosario Dawson did the nasty in Oliver Stone's "Alexander." Lena Headey also returns as Sparta's Queen Gorgo, mouthing lots of voice-over exposition and then, before it's too late, getting her big moment.
On a screenwriting level, the film is more cluttered in its storytelling and lacks rooting interest. In place of "This is SPARTA!" or "This is where we fight! And this is where THEY DIE!" there are a couple of delightfully lewd lines spoken by the two women: "You've come a long way to stroke your cock, while you watch real men train" and "You fight much harder than you fuck" are two howling keepers. It's evident that none of this is to be taken seriously and the filmmakers know it, but even insanely overwrought camp can run out of gas. Whenever Artemisia and Xerxes aren't up on screen, the latter being particularly sparse, "300: Rise of an Empire" is rather dull. Now, isn't that a sword in the heart?