300: Rise of an Empire is the sort of movie that can short-circuit a film critic's wiring. Both blood-bathetic and deliriously entertaining high camp, this prequel-sequel-parallel plotline to Warner Brothers' 2006 hit 300 will appeal mainly to meatheads, but those with a tolerance for over-the-top violence may appreciate it on other levels.
One of those levels may be "sexy," given the doubling-down on the fleshiness of 300: in addition to the rock-hard abs and bulging biceps of this ancient battle epic's Greek and Persian forces, 300: Rise of an Empire features a knockabout sex scene to end all knockabout sex scenes (sorry, Michael Douglas). Another level is classical-epic sweep: this is nothing if not a Homeric blend of legend and myth, with a credible take on glorified Greek attitudes to war that nods to its horrors while gleefully depicting bone-crushings, stabbings, and amputations of every extremity (see also The Iliad).
Specifically, 300: Rise of an Empire concerns Themistokles of Athens (Sullivan Stapleton of TV's Strike Back), a politician and general who plies Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey) for support in the war against Persian invaders (Gorgo eventually sees off Gerard Butler's Leonidas—glimpsed only in flashback—to the events of 300).
Since Themistokles slew King Darius of Persia at the Battle of Marathon, the Athenian made a formidable enemy of Darius' son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Xerxes hardly needs the added motivation, but Darius' adoptive daughter Artemisia (full-bore villainess Eva Green) goes all Lady Macbeth on Xerxes, prodding him to restyle himself as a god among men and whip up the Persian forces to crush Greece. History buffs, take note: this is your chance to see the Battle of Salamis and the Battle of Artemisium misrepresented on screen.
As with 300, the follow-up can be read as a white hat-black hat allegory for domestic democracy versus Middle-Eastern "Others." But one senses that the filmmakers have made a conscious effort to tamp down that nagging, politically incorrect sensibility: for as vampy-bad as Artemisia is, she's given a sympathetic "why I'm bad" backstory, as is Xerxes. By humanizing the Persians a little, this sequel's thankfully not quite as hawkish as its own characters.
Taking the reins from Zack Snyder, Noam Murro could hardly be a more unlikely choice of director. His only other feature directing credit is the entertaining but hardly action-packed 2008 comedy-drama Smart People, which takes place in Pittsburgh. And yet Murro both honors the 300 style (after Frank Miller, on whose graphic novels the films are based, with lots of slo-mo and gushing blood) and subtly improves on it with his own touch of tasteful dark lushness (perhaps it's the new color-coding of Athenian cerulean blue replacing Spartan red).
Don't get me wrong: 300: Rise of an Empire is still pretty garish; it's just sorta garish-pretty. It's also unabashedly hard-"R"-rated, and the fetishization of violence, however Homeric, can be off-putting, especially in deliberately in-your-face 3D. But thanks largely to Green demonstrably having a ball, this strange brew of "Athenian shock combat" and "Abercrombie and Twitch" posing stands little chance of boring audiences.