The best thing about the new 300: Rise of an Empire is that Zack Snyder didn’t direct it. And the worst thing about it is that Zack Snyder didn’t direct it.
Allow me to explain myself. Back in 2006, Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic book 300, a macho reimagining of the battle between a small band of Spartans and the Persian army in Thermopylae, made for a most unlikely hit. Sword and sandal movies weren’t exactly big business, but 300 captured something in the culture: The Iraq War was raging, and the film portrayed the beefy, noble Spartan warriors as brave Western heroes holding off a decadent, grotesque, beyond-Orientalized Persian army. Don’t ask me how we managed to see ourselves in the outnumbered, outgunned resistance and our scattered and desperate enemy in the massive, well-armed invading horde; it was a dark time for everybody.
Did Snyder have any real idea of the loaded politics of his filmmaking, the hateful equation at the heart of 300? I’m not sure: He followed 300 up with a literal-minded adaptation of Alan Moore's subversive comic book Watchmen. You sensed that, like a Chinese tattoo whose translation remains unknown, this stuff didn’t really mean anything to him: It just looked cool.
And bro, it did look cool. For all its hormonally unbalanced political ideas, 300 had a visual purity. Its speed-ramping lateral tracking shots resembled gory, 21st-century variations on Eadweard Muybridge's studies in motion. Snyder invested this rarefied stylistic conceit with a visceral kick: You admired the movement and cringed at the violence, even as you held the movie itself at arm's length for its stupidity. It worked so well that everybody and his mother has been aping it ever since. (Recently, the new Russian movie Stalingrad tried to do for WWII what 300 did for the ancient world. It was kind of ridiculous, but Russian audiences apparently ate it up.)
That brings us to 300: Rise of an Empire, which is an altogether more coherent and less politically convoluted film than 300. This time, Snyder serves as producer and co-writer, and has turned over directing duties to Israeli director Noam Murro. The result, though, is a lot less interesting — its style more anonymous and its macho theatrics more predictable.
The film starts where 300 left off — with a bird's-eye view of the Spartans and their King Leonidas lying dead in the wake of Thermopylae. But it then shifts focus to what’s happening elsewhere in Greece, as the Athenian General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) prepares for and then fights a massive Persian naval fleet led by the beautiful but ruthless Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek slave turned Persian general. (By the way, nobody actually goes to “war” in Rise of an Empire. They all go to something called “wooooooh.”) Along the way, the movie flashes forward and backward, trying to explain the (made-up) reasons for the Persians’ second invasion of Greece, and filling in all-important details about how the Persian king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) got to be an eight-foot, fully shaved golden god. (Answer: He walked into a hermits’ cave, there was a pool … these things happen.)
For all those attempts to lend additional context, Rise of an Empire actually feels more cartoonish than the original film, more eager to indulge in the base pleasures of an action flick. The film has a fantastic ace card in Eva Green’s Artemisia — a magnificently vicious creation, an over-the-top badass who slices and dices her way through battle and then makes out with the severed heads of her vanquished enemies. (As the overripe narration tells us, “Her ferocity was bested only by her beauty, her beauty matched only by her devotion to her king.”) Green, the ingénue of Bertolucci’s The Dreamers and the Bond girl with a brain from Casino Royale, has so much fun with the part that they should do a spinoff movie just about her.
As for the battles themselves, once again they are highly stylized, though in a more humdrum way. Director Murro can speed-ramp like a champ, but gone is the level of abstraction that Snyder brought to the original — and with it, much of the visual interest. As our amped-up, beefed-up, ‘roided-up heroes do their sideways slo-mo somersaults, as the limbs and the heads go flying, as the thick screen blood splatters the lens like barbecue sauce, you may find yourself wondering if that speed-ramping thing can make things go faster.
But then, every once in a while, the movie throws a compelling image at you, and you’re briefly entranced again: a dark horizon filling with ships like plagues of locusts, or a vertigo-inducing 3-D shot of Xerxes surveying his massive army from an impossibly high precipice, or a harrowing vision of Athens being burned to the ground by the invading Persians. Moments like these, and a villain that’s hard to resist, may be enough to make Rise of an Empire a better movie than 300. But don’t be surprised if, two weeks from now, you forget it ever existed.