“300: Rise of an Empire” plays like a collaboration between the Marquis de Sade and Michael Bay. Or maybe the History Channel and the “Saw” franchise. Catering to audiences that savor chest-thumping machismo, in-your-face eruptions of blood and hyper-pumped male musculature fetishized in slo-mo, it’s unlike anything else in theaters today. Thank goodness.
Fans of Zack Snyder’s 2007 hit “300” will see some familiar faces. Rodrigo Santoro returns as the bald, bling-bedecked Persian god-king Xerxes, with Lena Headey as the warlike Spartan queen Gorgo, and even a cameo by Gerard Butler as her late husband Leonidas, who fell in the battle of Thermopylae, defending Greece from eastern hordes.
Yes, there’s a walk-on by a deceased character, because this not-a-prequel, not-a-sequel jumbles in events before, during and after the first film’s timeline. This chapter moves the conflict to sea battles, with Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) laboring to rally his homeland’s divided kingdoms against their common enemy, the Persians. His nemesis is Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek turncoat who commands Xerxes’ fleet.
The film’s dramatic center of gravity is off-balance, with the fearsome/repellent Xerxes on the sidelines and Artemisia pursuing personal revenge through military means. Stapleton is utterly colorless, especially in contrast to Butler, who bellowed his lines like a boss. Green is the film’s dynamo, a villainess with electric eyes and a rumbling, husky voice who is equally brutal and bonkers. She rains scorn and destruction on her enemies and French-kisses an enemy’s decapitated head. She’s one of those black hats, like Loki, Anton Chigurh or Hannibal Lecter, who steal the movie.
Snyder’s hand is evident here as a co-writer and producer, with Noam Murro handling the directing duties. He was apparently chosen for his ability to mimic the look and feel of the original. Again we have constant, dramatic, digitally created storm clouds, imparting a look of Scandinavian gloom to famously sunny Greece. There are repeated low-angle shots of muscleman actors, as if the camera is kneeling worshipfully before them. The action sequences are ostentatious tidal waves of amputation and disembowelment, replicating the look of the Frank Miller graphic novels that inspired the movies. Say what you will about the dubious content, this is a technically and visually impressive piece of craftsmanship.
Disturbingly, the film gives Snyder another forum to explore his fascination with hate-sex. For all the violence onscreen, nothing tops the punishing scene of rage and intercourse between Artemisia and Themistokles, as she connives to make him switch sides. The episode echoes queasy episodes of fury and coitus in Snyder’s “Watchmen” and “Sucker Punch.” He’s the rape-iest major moviemaker working today. In the climactic duel, Artemisia belittles Themistokles’ lovemaking performance before he decisively shows her who has the bigger sword. Snyder would be better served sharing those fantasies with a professional than with the impressionable young male audiences his films attract.