Man, woman, gay, straight, bi: There's something for everyone in 300: Rise of an Empire, the XXL sequel to the also-larger-than-life Greeks-in-shinguards extravaganza 300. In that picture, directed by Zack Snyder and based on Frank Miller's graphic novel about the three-day Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., the Spartans and their small but mighty army kicked the asses of the Persians, with much yelling, grunting, and spilling of black-red CGI blood. Though it isn't exactly a sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire might have been essentially more of the same, but for one distinction that makes it 300 times better than its predecessor: Mere mortals of Athens, Sparta, and every city from Mumbai to Minneapolis, behold the magnificent Eva Green, and tremble!
While warrior-king Leonidas was mixing it up at Thermopylae, Athenian general Themistocles was doing his damnedest to fend off the Persian navy at nearby Artemisium. That's the conflict dramatized in 300: Rise of an Empire, also based on source material by Miller, this time with Israeli director Noam Murro at the helm (though Snyder had a hand in the screenplay). Once again, real, live human actors have been subjected to some unholy CGI process that renders their skin poreless and flat — it glows like reconstituted marble. And again, 99.9 percent of the characters are men who run around jabbing swords into one another's sternums and going, "Gaaah!" This time they're just doing it at sea.
You don't need to have seen 300 to get the gist of Rise of an Empire, though it probably helps. Gerard Butler does not make a return as Leonidas, though his face shows up in the admittedly stunning opening shot, a brownish jumble of dead bodies that gradually shifts into a death tableau rendered in muted but glowing colors, like medieval stained glass. This time around, Themistocles, gentle-spirited but tough as a lion's claw, is the star of the show — he's played by Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton (Animal Kingdom, Gangster Squad), who musters at least a few whiskers' worth of authority as he delivers sub-St. Crispin's Day lines like, "We choose to die on our feet rather than live on our knees!" Those who loved 300 — or even just those who recall it as a beefcake blur — will note the return of several characters, among them Lena Headey's stern, no-makeup-look Queen Gorgo, David Wenham's one-eyed warrior Dilios, and, best of all, Rodrigo Santoro's Persian god-king Xerxes, who once again graces the screen with his multiple piercings, gold-dipped skin, and glistening chrome dome. He's like the Oscar statuette crossed with Mr. Clean.
Other delights for people of all sexes and persuasions include an adorable swain in a mini-kilt (Jack O'Connell) and an array of impressive digitally created backgrounds. Of those, the Persian ones are the best: The interiors are dazzling, a riot of elaborate panther carvings and gently shimmering fish-scale patterns. It's always a disappointment when the action shifts back to Athens, with its tasteful, businesslike columns and guys walking around solemnly in rough tunics, each held together with a little clip.
Admittedly, even if you're not really one for digital effects, the whole enterprise looks pretty grand. Yet the finest spectacle in all of Rise of an Empire is a human being: Eva Green plays resident bad gal Artemisia, commander of the Persian navy. As a child, she watched as Greek soldiers raped and killed members of her family; then the Greeks made her a slave, violating her and leaving her for dead. She was rescued by Persians and trained as a warrior. Now she hates all Greek men — wouldn't you? — though her hormones kick into love-hate overdrive when she gets a gander at Themistocles and his noble brow (among other attributes).
But, really, who's looking at him? In her every scene — and thankfully, she's in lots of them — Green's Artemisia is something to behold. She makes her entrance in a fringed leather gown with a molded breastplate, sweeping into the Persian palace like a B.C. Morticia Addams. From there, her costumes become even more elaborate: There are one-shouldered numbers draped with chains and dotted with grommets, shimmery columns that resemble liquid metal, and, perhaps finest of all, a skin-tight sheath with a row of silver spikes running down her spinal column like a violent shiver. Artemisia wears gowns even onboard her ship, fer Chrissakes. Her over-the-topness — and, in one scene, her resplendent toplessness — really gets Rise of an Empire cooking.
Green is a far better actress than she's usually given credit for. In Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, her debut, she captured perfectly that bumpy stage in the growing-up timeline when you're hoping to mask coming-of-age awkwardness with been-there, done-that sophistication. And as James Bond's doomed love, Vesper, in Casino Royale, she blended gravity with vulnerability, a hard mix to get right whether you're shaking or stirring.
Green knows just what to do in 300: Rise of an Empire: She takes the dialogue seriously but gives each line a mischievous tweak. Artemisia commands her naval warriors as if she were telling them what to do in bed: "Today we will dance across the backs of dead Greeks," she purrs, pronouncing the word dance "dahnse" — because that's what an all-powerful enchantress would do. When she lowers her kohl-rimmed eyes, the sailors hear, and they obey. They'll kill for her, and they'll die for her. Green makes it all look like dahnsing.