The phrase sword-and-sandal used to evoke vaguely homoerotic visions of old-timey masculinity, back when Spartacus roamed the screen. (“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?” Capt. Oveur asked in “Airplane,” and a knowing nation chortled.) Whereas the high-aspiring (and eventual Best Picture winner) “Gladiator” didn’t leer at its players’ bodies to any gratuitous degree, its successors have shown no such restraint. “Troy” sold Brad Pitt’s thighs and Eric Bana’s chest with aplomb, and cleared a tidy profit. Then “300” came along to dispense with any pretense of aiming middlebrow.
By my math, exactly 2,400 individual abs starred in “300,” as every last Spartan sported a set of motocross hills over his belt, framed by a cape. Most slaughterhouse exposés feature less damp beef than “300.” Ladies leaned forward in their seats. Straight dudes who registered all the taut skin chalked their interest up to the film’s plethora of quality killing. Less-straight dudes experienced no such internal conflict. Everyone left a winner, except, spoiler alert, 300 well-muscled corpses.
In crafting the sequel, “300: Rise of an Empire,” director Noam Murro and screenwriter Zack Snyder (director of the first “300,” plus “Man of Steel” and “The Watchmen”) decided that if mostly naked worked the first time, maybe even nakeder would land even better. The quality killing is still here, painted in the kind of over-digitized, starkly color-contrasting palate that gave “300” its signature graphic-novel feel.
“Rise of an Empire” won’t outshine its progenitor (no “Empire Strikes Back,” this one). But it goes for broke along the way: gruesome pitched sea battles, trashy sex, blood by the tankerload, monsters, maimings, beheadings, atrocity, fire, more Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), and scads of rippling man muscles, again framed in capes. The R-rating, such a rarity as studios water down this sort of fare for ninth-graders, is as appreciated as it is deserved.
The movie isn’t particularly good, though, even as a “300” sequel. It’s dark and murky, and its lead, the Greek general Themostokles (Sullivan Stapleton), lacks the raw magnetism of Gerard Butler’s brutish Leonidas. After killing a Persian king in an attempted invasion, Themostokles earns the ire and begrudging admiration of the king’s adopted daughter, Artemisia, whom Eva Green plays as a bloodthirsty goth set on conquest of Greece. She’s one of the high points of the film, actually, paving a swath of sheer nastiness across every scene she blights. At her command are a thousand slave-rowed battleships; in her sights are Themostokles and his ragtag fleet of wooden ships.
Many will die! And those quite horribly! And… that’s about all that happens. The notions of valor and loyalty are the same recycled tropes we’ve gathered from generations of classical-ish war movies. The battle scenes are so oversaturated with digital effects that it’s hard to take them seriously as anything but a lurid Saturday morning cartoon.
Every shield-and-spear orgy of the past 20 years has trailed the graphic analog savagery of “Braveheart,” and “Rise of an Empire,” like “Troy” before it, suffers in the comparison. The Greeks are underdogs, and we love ‘em for that, but they don’t give us much more reason to root for them. The Spartans of “300” were feral macho surfboard models; these Greeks, no slouches, yet pattycake around with democracy and architecture and other frivolities.
No one, not even Capt. Oveur, goes to see gladiator movies for the intellectual stimulation. But a shred more personality couldn’t hurt.