When “300” became a global action hit in 2006, it inaugurated a brand new genre: Ancient Bro History. Here was the 480 BC Battle of Thermopylae the way it needed to play for 21st-century audiences: with rippling six-packs, rockin’ ultra-violence, hoarse declamations of macho sacrifice, and a general visual and narrative esthetic pillaged from the video games that were the target demographic’s primary form of leisure activity. If you weren’t in that demo, you probably watched the movie with appalled giggles, but if you were, it was awesome. I mean, you could always read Herodotus, but, dude, what’s the point?
Eight long years later, we have “300: Rise of an Empire.” Like the first film, it’s based on a graphic novel by the talented Frank Miller (“The Dark Knight,” “Sin City”). But it isn’t so much a sequel or a prequel as it is a narrative that takes place at the same time the Spartans are going down manfully at Thermopylae. (What is that — a side-quel?) The focus is on Athenian hero Themistocles (Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton) as he tries to keep the Persian invasion at bay during the battles of Marathon, Artemisium, and Salamis while simultaneously whipping the fractious Greek city-states into, you know, a nation.
Basically, if the first “300” was a pep-talk from Coach on how to lose with dignity, “Rise of an Empire” is an inspirational speech on the value of teamwork. Delivered by an assistant coach, actually, since original director Zack Snyder has been replaced by Noam Murro (“Smart People”). (Snyder is still on board as producer and co-writer.) And, really, the movie’s mostly about kicking butt.
Once again, the battle sequences are heavily CGI-ed affairs: thundering screensavers within which men hack and skewer and pound each other into gobbets of digitized flesh. “Rise of an Empire” takes the first film’s schtick — that bit where the action goes to extreme slo-mo as the killing blow is struck — and through overuse turns it into a meaningless visual tic. Since the new film is in 3-D, the blood flows more freely, erupting from necks and chests and landing on the camera lens with a viscous, wine-dark splat.
Despite all that, and despite a thin subplot involving Themistocles’s friend Scyllias (Callan Mulvey) and his battle-ready son (Jack O’Connell), “Rise of an Empire” may strike some as an improvement on the first film, if only for two reasons: naval warfare and the glorious absurdity of Eva Green.
Green (“Casino Royale,” “Dark Shadows”) plays Artemisia, the power-mad commander of the Persian fleet, and as strikingly punked-up a presence as the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) was in “300,” he takes a back seat this time. Stapleton as Themistocles is generic but appealingly sane, and the scene in which he meets Artemisia for a parley that turns into hot, ridiculous first-date sex is like the high school quarterback getting jumped by the class bad girl. An Ancient Bro History movie is never quite sure what to do with a powerful female character — other than make sure we get to see her naked — but Green knows, and she pushes it right in our faces.
“Rise of an Empire” benefits, too, from all those sea battles, especially the decisive engagements at Artemisium and Salamis. The cameras pull back and for once use 3-D to show us the big picture: the overwhelming Persian forces, the outnumbered Greek triremes, the strategic thinking and maneuvering needed to win the day. If the “300” movies are, generally speaking, propaganda for the troops, these scenes offer a few lessons for junior officers before rushing us back into the fray.
The sequel also feels less strident than the first film in its racial politics (handsome, stalwart Greeks = us; swarthy, treacherous Persians = them), perhaps because we’re not actively at war in that part of the world just now. Instead, the script hammers away with virile paeans to freedom and a newfangled idea called democracy, which, translated into action, means that the Persians whip their galley slaves while the Greeks use trained volunteers and that the city-states eventually come around to the idea of unity.
Heading up the beleaguered Sparta, by the way, is Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), one of the few holdovers from “300.” She cuts a commanding figure in her few scenes, and a far less complex one than Cersei Lannister, the role Headey plays on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” If every generation has its epics told in the format it feels most comfortable with — if CGI is the new oral history — a 102-minute movie like “300: Rise of an Empire” still plays like short-term bread and circuses. These days, even the bros know you go to TV for the long game.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.