"You've come a long way to stroke your cock watching real men train," says Sparta's Queen Gorgo (Game of Thrones' Lena Headey) to Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), the Athenian protagonist of 300: Rise of an Empire. This serves as a quick lesson in how to watch this thing, director Noam Murro's not-quite-sequel to Zack Snyder's 2006 movie 300. ("What do you call it? A prequel? A sequel?" Murro said to the L.A. Times. "It's an equal, hopefully. It's a different perspective of the same time. Thematically, that's an interesting place to be." Yes. Innnnnteresting.)
Snyder's fictionalized retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae (based on Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's comic book) was less notable for its slow-mo prone, sepia-kissed visuals than for its homoerotic portrayal an army full of grunting, pneumatic hunks driven by testosterone. For that, it became something of a laughingstock, which seems fair to me.
In an era wherein it is (mostly) OK to say "gay," unspoken homoeroticism functions primarily as comedy, regardless of intention. Where 300 seemed mostly clueless about how gay it seemed, Rise of an Empire id a bit more aware. The screenplay has a bunch of disgruntled Athenians say things like, "Shut your cock hole!" and "Fuck those muscle-bound boy lovers!" in an early town square meeting. Themistocles takes a particular shine to a young, nubile member of his army, Calisto (Jack O'Connell), who tells his commander, "My blade will be sharp and ready by the morning." That is, after all, when they're sharpest. Themistocles' No. 1, though, his rock, is the long-haired and relentlessly faithful Aesyklos (Hans Matheson).
But no one man can satisfy Themistocles. "I have spent my life on my one true love: the Greek fleet," he proclaims. Sounds like an active life!
Because today's world offers plenty of places to see more male flesh even more openly eroticized than what 300: Rise of an Empire offers—porn, a circuit party, your local steam room—the movie's glistening coyness comes across as a reminder of yesteryear's cinematic gay coding, when you had to squint real hard at a movie to see what was going on. That's about the only useful history lesson this film provides. Taken as text, rather than subtext, 300 is to ancient Greek history what the Olive Garden is to Italian food.
If this movie is garbage, though, it's perfect garbage, an always entertaining stream of absurdity that tells a very basic story of good guys versus bad guys. The good guys are the Athenians and the bad guys are the Persians. This particular Persian army is led not by the previous film's drag-queen god-man Xerxes, he of the eye-filling package, but by his sister Aretemisia (Eva Green). Aretemisia's so goth, she eats an apple with a 16-inch dagger that she then uses to decapitate a dude. Holding his disembodied head by its hair, she kisses it passionately. She's basically Evanescene rebooted.
CGI blood ripples in bullet time, a horse smashes a soldier's face in, another horse gallops from boat to boat during a climactic battle scene on water, at times submerging and leaping from the sea. Man rides horse, horse rides sea. (Horseboard. Horseboard.) There's a hunchback messenger who's reminiscent of Sloth from The Goonies. There's a scene in which, as a Persian boat blasts oil at the Athenians, the soldier controlling the oil gets hit with a flaming arrow, falls overboard right into the oil stream, and creates a fireball. There's a crow that not only plucks the eye out of a corpse, but holds the optic nerve in its beak, gratuitously tilting its head so that the eyeball swings several times. There's a scene of rough, standing sex between Themistocles and Artemesia. Later, she evaluates his performance: "You fight much harder than you fuck."
This is a ridiculous collage of spectacle, like an incredibly well paced horror flick. 300: Rise of an Empire is an exploitation movie several times over: It's absploitation, it's warsploitation, it's goresploitation. Murro also told the L.A. Times, "I understood this movie as populist entertainment through the eyes of an opera." I'm pretty sure he was being serious, but as with most everything else here, it's impossible to be sure.