In many ways, 300: Rise of an Empire is just more of 300. Set before, during, and after the ancient Battle of Thermopylae as slowed-down, amped-up, and all around exaggerated in the first film, this sequel has the same rhythms in cluttered battle sequences, obviously fake CGI backdrops, and unwavering focus on masculine bodies in motion. It has the same attention to chiseled abs, bulging loincloths, big swinging swords, and geysers of digital blood. The Greeks are still presented as wholly good, dudes fighting for nothing more than freedom itself. Their Persian foes are still the darker-hued, effeminate others who want nothing more than to kill because they hate freedom. Setting up such divisions as essentialist markers of good and evil obliterates nuance and grows awfully queasy.
Last time we watched Persians slaughter 300 Greeks, Spartans making a doomed stand for their country. So dedicated to their dunderheaded ideal of authentic masculinity as combat alone, the film was a loud and monotonous gargle of stylized bloodlust. Noam Murro (whose only other film is the 2008 Sundance movie Smart People, for whatever that’s worth) may have taken over the director’s chair from Zack Snyder for the sequel, but Snyder remained co-writer and producer on the project. There’s a consistency of vision here. It’s easy to imagine cutting both 300 films together into one long four-hour slog. Both are almost perversely head over heels in love with martyrdom to the point where the insistent glorifying of war is hard to take.
But where Rise of an Empire manages to best its predecessor, slipping past some of the inherent ugliness, is in its marginally better modulation. The violence is spread out enough to create some emotional dynamics. It’s not all blustery machismo and stop-start slow-mo. We have time to see the new characters, some of which actually stand out from the sea of bare chests and scruff. A blandly noble Grecian naval officer (Sullivan Stapleton) gathers men and boats to meet a Persian fleet heading their way. Eva Green of Casino Royale and The Dreamers plays his Persian counterpart. She’s given a bloody awful backstory and dressed in stylishly flowing battle gear. She storms through every scene she’s in, slicing and dicing her enemies while chewing up the scenery and scene partners with equal vigor. I knew intellectually that she was the villain of the picture, hell-bent on burning Greece to the ground and impaling our freedom-loving heroes to the masts of their ships. But there’s such a delight in watching her storm about, ready to behead anyone who annoys her, quick to snap and growl her threats and strategic decisions with equal venom. I wanted to be on her side.
If the film was leaner and more focused on the clash between the wild-eyed Green and the beige Stapleton it would’ve been quite a kick of bloody artificiality. You’d think it’d be harder to mess up something as simple as bland good guys plus interesting bad guys equal big battle scenes, especially when the screenplay isn’t leaning so heavily on its root xenophobic political undercurrents and embracing its homoerotic visual interests. Instead, we have to sit through endless convolutions. We see the backstory of Persian king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), as if we were all yearning to see how he was a shrimpy, stubbled heir who mourned his father by taking a dip in a magic hermit cave pond and emerged a waxed and bejeweled giant. We also have to listen to Lena Headey grieving husband Gerard Butler by giving a pep talk to her troops in voice over exposition that seems to last about half the movie before finally disappearing, only to return near the end.
But if its greatest sin is boredom, that’s still a great deal better than its predecessor. It’s still an amped up expression of pure violent id, but it’s not as ugly. Because there are characters who are more than reductive warmongering symbols, it’s easier to get invested in their plights. The gender dynamic is far more palatable, even gripping at times in its breathy intensity. Green and Stapleton have a scene of tense negotiations in the middle of the picture that has a curious sensual charge, a spark of physical attraction between them that then filters into their armies’ clashes over the rest of the movie. It’s a love-hate magnetism that’s a welcome undercurrent to the sometimes-exciting over-the-top action surrounding it. And because both armies are balanced in this way, all the shouted prejudices don’t seem so icky. Murro shoots it all in imitation-Snyder style, all gleaming filters and gauzy grain, but instead of simply copying 300’s brownish sludge he invites a bit more color to the palate, using the film's trading the desert location for ocean to his advantage. If we must have a sequel to 300, at least it’s easier on the eyes and not quite so hard on the intellect.