One and a half stars out of four
The glistening abs are back in "300: Rise of an Empire," and they've been doing crunches.
Like its forerunner, the 2007 hit "300," "Rise of an Empire" again plunges us into bloody, hyper-stylized Greek history: mythology with muscles. The computer-generated warfare franchise is now a third of the way to a six-pack.
Made clearly to capitalize on the popularity of "300," "Rise of an Empire" is something like collected behind-the-scenes from the Persian invasion featured in "300." Whereas the first film chronicled, ab by ab, the Spartans' heroic stand in the Battle of Thermopylae against Xerxes's Persian invasion, "Rise of an Empire" is about the concurrent naval fight, the Battle of Artemisium.
This may be war by sea, but the ingredients of "300" are largely unaltered. An outnumbered band of Greeks staves off a tyrannical Persian army below roiling skies of red and gray. Manly honor is fetishized to a comical degree. Blood spills like soup.
These two films, very much intertwined, provoke a number of questions: Did everyone forget their shirts? Is this a workout video? Or is this just the most absurdly ridiculous thing ever?
Yes and no. In "Rise of an Empire," Zack Snyder moves from the director's chair to producer (and co-screenwriter with Kurt Johnstad), leaving Noam Murro to helm the film. But Snyder's imprint is unmistakable, with his visual style carried over, mimicking the extremes of Frank Miller's comic book illustrations (the inspiration of both movies).
These are easy films to make fun of. It's why perhaps the best thing to come out of "300" was the viral video "It's Raining Men," a clip of the movie's Mediterranean men in various states of brotherly togetherness, set to the disco tune.
But they're also precisely the movies they seek to be: Some kind of grandly warped, excessively heightened dream of mythical battle. It's as if Douglas Sirk made a combat video game.
At least it's the women who reign in "Rise of an Empire," though one wouldn't expect that given its seconds into the film when naked breasts make their first gratuitous appearance. The male actors here - Sullivan Stapleton as the Greek hero Themistokles, Santoro, back as the bronzed Xerxes - are easily outdone by the females.
There is Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey of "Game of Thrones") lordly presiding over Sparta. But as Persian commander Artemisia, Eva Green rules ferociously over the film. She drives the Persians with a warrior's desperate thirst for revenge and a stare that makes the men of her army cower.
It's like a reckoning of the macho multitudes of "300." She single-handedly spoils the landscape of manly torsos.