Talk about meeting cute: The first time they're alone together, the protagonists of 300: Rise of an Empire rip each other's clothes off. But then Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) and Artemisia (Eva Green) can't decide if they want to make love or war.
The other characters in this movie, a superstylized battle epic that doubles as an S&M comedy, suffer no such confusion. They're all primed to mangle, skewer and dismember each other, generally at angles that send red-black CGI blood spurting directly at 3-D-specs-wearing viewers. It's an effect that soon becomes numbing — but then so does everything else in Israeli director Noam Murro's drab, repetitive sequel to 2006's 300.
Actually, Rise of an Empire isn't exactly a sequel; it's more of a simul-quel, since most of the action takes place at the same time as the battle in the earlier film. While those 300 Spartans fight invading Persians on land, Athens-born Themistokles leads a Greek-coalition fleet against a much larger Persian armada.
Themistokles, it turns out, is the guy who took out Darius, the Persian king who led a failed assault on Greece 10 years earlier. So Darius' brooding son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) seems to crave vengeance against the Athenian, although it's hard to tell for sure. The way he struts around — gleaming, pierced and nearly naked — it appears that what Xerxes really wants is to be on the cover of L'Uomo Vogue.
Luckily, the Persian king can count on Artemisia, who shares his goth-punk fashion sense but is much more focused on combat. She leads repeated sallies against the Greeks, and never seems happier than when fighting one-on-one with implements that elicit what she calls "the ecstasy of steel and flesh." Other turn-ons: leather breastplates, setting things on fire and slaying ineffective subordinates.
Rise of an Empire has such a thing for decapitations that severed noggins become almost routine, but only Artemisia thinks to lift a freshly separated head and kiss it on the lips. No wonder Green's character is the film's most memorable, and loads more fun than Stapleton's earnest Themistokles.
Random scraps of this scenario are historically true. There really was an Artemisia, although the backstory the movie provides is fiction. Also genuine is Sparta's Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who serves as the narrator. It's unlikely, however, that either woman resembled a Marvel Comics superheroine quite so much as they do here.
Co-written by 300 director Zach Snyder, the script is based on Frank Miller's unfinished graphic novel, Xerxes, which draws on Hellenistic writer Herodotus (aka "the father of lies"). The characterization of the democratic Greeks (noble and scarred, bearded but chest-waxed) and the theocratic Persians (proto-Nazi berserkers dressed by Lady Gaga) is sheer nonsense.
Not that anyone should expect realism from an ancient-world war epic whose look and feel are utterly contemporary. Although the actors are less digitally altered than in 300, the movie relies heavily on computer-generated backdrops, effects and "camera movements." And its overamplified wounds, blows and cries are woven into a score by Dutch electronicist Junkie XL.
If the movie's action recalls video games, the dramatically artificial lighting suggests 1980s rock videos. Indeed, Rise of an Empire is so campy that it might work better as a musical. All those topless Greek hunks could sing, "I'm too sexy for my shirt," and Artemisia could share a duet with a severed head. "It Ain't Me, Babe" might work.