300 was a jingoistic, borderline homophobic, one-note macho-posturing movie which happened to have a fascinating visual style and a flair for slo-mo action. It made Zack Snyder. He'd follow it up with an almost-there Watchmen adaptation and then go on to turn one-note posturing into a career.
It is rare to find a sequel which takes the piss out of the original. 300: Rise of an Empire manages.
It takes place both before, during, and after 300. Themistokles the Athenian attempts to rally the Greek city-states to face the Persian invasion. The Spartans are too busy getting off on going off to die, other cities insist on parlaying, so Athens has to make do while the others settle their argument.
Where 300 painted the Spartans as ascetic warrior-poets and the Persians as effete, arrogant conquerors from a too-comfortable society, Rise tells us the story of how Xerxes' messenger saved and raised a Greek girl who Geeks of a different city enslaved, sexually brutalized for years then left for dead.
Where 300 put a strong woman in a central role then relegated her character to a sexual bargaining chip, Rise has Eva Green's Artemisia, the rescued little girl turned general who becomes a fleet-destroying throat-slicing man-eating one-woman army who leads better than her commanders and fights harder than any of her soldiers.
Where 300's Leonidas ridiculed a peasant's offer to help, relying instead on his chosen few's military training to face the Persians head-on, Rise's Themistokles is a politician surrounded by farmers and bookworms who uses his knowledge of the local area and deceptive stratagems to fight.
Where 300 glorified war and the Spartans' militarized society, Rise starts with the reasons behind Xerxes' mad desire to conquer Greece: his father Darius died by Themistokles' arrow and Artemisia poured poison in her ear, using Xerxes' revenge as a cover for her own. Murder begets murder. Violence begets violence.
They're both loud and bloody and have too much slo-mo, but Rise of an Empire is more self-aware. You can hear Themistokles' finger quotes when he talks about the great Spartans. 300's Spartans no longer come across as professional warriors but as a death cult, with Themistokles' leadership insecurities feeling more human than Leonidas' suicidal certainty.
Still lots of bare chests but barely any chest thumping.
The movie can't stand on its own, though – Eva Green has to carry it all the way on her spiked, leather-armored back. Any scene she's in, other characters recede into masked, faceless extras, as her eyes slither and her voice ooze all over the scene. She's done her share of scenery chewing before, but Artemisia feels like all her career compressed into one part: femme fatale and damaged girl and over-the-top villain and independent woman and commander in a position others feel should be occupied by someone with different genitals. Sullivan Stapleton's forgettable, expressionless Themistokles works only because you can expect Artemisia to come up and speak with her whole lower face as her gaze hunts around for something to devour. She makes his blandness come across as restraint.
No, it's not a great movie. From a technical standpoint, it's not even unequivocally a good one. But it's the movie equivalent of sitting down and having too many drinks and snacks while shooting the shit on a Friday night: maybe you shouldn't have overdone it, but it was fun, and given the right circumstances you'd probably do it again.