Enough with the PG-13-rated war epics! Thousands, maybe millions die violently in recent action movies set in the past (The Legend of Hercules, Pompeii) or the future (World War Z, Pacific Rim), yet the combat on screen is sedate, anodyne. To understand the disasters of war, the audience needs to see the thrust of the sword, feel the impact of the bullet — aspects of mortality that are fully available only in films with an R rating. The old masters knew this — Sam Peckinpah with The Wild Bunch, Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone with Platoon, Steven Spielberg with Saving Private Ryan — and their rule should apply today. In any truly vigorous film of men at war, there must, there will be blood.
There’s plenty of blood in 300: Rise of an Empire, the followup to the 2007 smash 300 — both based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller. In depicting the Battle of Salamis between the Greeks and the Persians, director Noam Murro has upped the density level of the blood spilled: from, say, Campbell’s Tomato Soup to Campbell’s Chunky Beef with Tomato and Extra Innards. Soldiers hack away at their foes, and the gore spills in slo-mo across the 3-D IMAX screen like an action painting from Jackson Pollock’s crimson period, or a troll’s projectile vomit, or fistfuls of cranberry sauce hurled across the Thanksgiving table by your angry uncle.
(READ: Lev Grossman’ inside story on Zack Snyder’s 300)
We’re saying the movie is bloody. In dark, roiling images captured by cinematographer Simon Duggan, who last did The Great Gatsby (this is his Great Gutsby), the spectacle in Rise of an Empire provides both a graphic lesson on the spoils, indeed the soils, of war and a dizzying aesthetic experience — as when an injured warrior falls from his ship, and the plasma spreads through the water like a school of sea anemones. One can watch in repulsion or wonder; either response is O.K. So is flinching.
Rise of an Empire, which opens exactly seven years after 300, is neither a sequel nor a prequel to Zack Snyder’s CGI/green-screen epic about Leonides (Gerard Butler) at the Battle of Thermopylae in 479 B.C. Rather, it’s a “meanwhile” movie: it covers events that took place in the rest of Greece slightly before, during and after the Sparta-Persia skirmish. This time the Athenians — trained in pottery and poetry, not war — raise the pan-Hellenic flag. Led by General Themistocles (Aussie actor Sullivan Stapleton, who looks and sounds like Michael Fassbender’s grunt double), they will out-fight and outsmart the gigantic naval force of King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and put an end to Persia’s dream of annexing Greece.
(READ: Corliss’s review of 300)
You knew all that from ninth-grade history. But maybe your teacher didn’t mention that Artemisia, a Greek girl who became Queen of Persia, commanded the imperial Navy with supreme finesse in swordsmanship and the sneer of a gorgeous Gorgon to wither all enemies. That, anyway, is the take that Miller and Snyder, as producer and cowriter (with Kurt Johnstad) lay on their new movie — and that the always luscious Eva Green brings to ferociously seductive life.
For a legendary woman warrior, Artemisia shows few strategic skills, counting on her edge in naval vessels to defeat the Greeks. She’s also no marksman’s match for Themistocles. One of his arrows kills the Persian ruler Darius (Igal Naor), Xerxes’ father and Artemisia’s husband; yet three of her arrows that land in Themistocles’s body only send him into the water for a cleansing that may make him a god-man. Xerxes went through the same deity bath, but it transformed him only from a dishy human into a gold-plated glam-rock poseur. Despite deploying what may be history’s first suicide bombers, the Persians simply can’t catch a break, from the gods or the scriptwriters.
(READ: Roger Rosenblatt on Themistocles and the Olympic Ideal by subscribing to TIME)
Artemisia’s real strengths are her seductive beauty and her addiction for revenge. As a child, she was captured, abused and discarded by Greek soldiers (Caitlin Carmichael and Jade Chynoweth exude a smoldering resentment as the eight- and 13-year-old Artemisia). Moving in with Darius, she nursed that wound into the mission to conquer all Greece with the Persian Navy she now commands. During one battle, when she decapitates a Greek soldier, she lifts the dead man’s head and, with a tender hatred, kisses it on the mouth.
The irresistible siren is a creature right up Green’s alley. An ivory-skinned beauty with a forehead as high as the Metalunans’ in This Island Earth, the Franco-Swedish actress made an indelibly lubricious impression in her film debut as the teen temptress in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. She was a middle-Eastern princess in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, James Bond’s doomed love Vespa Lind in the Casino Royale reboot, a witch who haunts Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows and the sorceress Morgan in the Starz series Camelot. As the kohl-eyed leather goddess Artemisia, Green channels cultural history’s most implacable divas, from Anna Magnani to Maria Callas, from Medea to Cruella de Vil. Green’s imposing solemnity allows her to play a camp vamp as if she were a tragic heroine — ideal for a role that mixes hubris and the hots.
(READ: A love note to Eva Green in Perfect Sense)
Green’s presence here hints at the other reason movies get a Restricted rating: so the little ones won’t be frightened by the sight of a beautiful woman with her shirt off. The original 300 was famed for its display of finely sculpted man-meat, a Muscle Beach party of perfect abs, lats and triceps — all male, in what was probably the most homo-erotic war movie ever. Rise of an Empire has similar beefcake on view; the actors pose like statuary in the Ancient Hunk wing of the British Museum. For this film, though, the begetters seem to have decided that, if they’re going to make a bloody R, they may as well make it a sexy R, too. As in heterosexy.
So the movie turns Artemisia and Themistocles into erotic as well as military rivals. Their first face-to-face encounter, in the hold of her flagship, quickly escalates into belly-to-belly, and a few more forceful variations. For these two, sex is violence — the expression of lovemaking as war by other means that has the jolt of intense intimate combat. When it’s over she smirks, “You’re not a god. You’re just a man.”
(READ: What Ever Happened to Movie Sex?)
[SPOILER ALERT:] And in the inevitable final swordplay between the two, Artemisia tartly acknowledges, “You fight harder than you f—.” That remark must steam Themistocles: he drops his cutlass and punches her square in the face. In about 30 seconds, the movie has recapitulated the sad history of the battle of the sexes: brute force over guile. Mortally stabbed by Themistocles, Artemisia pushes her body deeper into the blade, until she is close enough to her killer to kiss him, just as she did earlier to a vanquished Greek. [END SPOILER ALERT.]
For added allure, Lena Headey returns as Leonides’ wife, now widow. His heroic death has etched the Queen’s face with a grave luster, as she debates with Themistocles whether to bequeath her remaining cadre of Spartans to the all-Greek cause. Her eventual “Yes” cues a handsome tilt of ships and men, played out in front of green screens that animate the background action. (The movie was shot in Bulgaria and L.A.) But for all the energetic milling, Rise of an Empire proves superior to its predecessor by making war a game both sexes can play, on nearly equal terms. In comparison, the R-rated 300 seems as innocent as Adam in the Garden before the delicious complication of Eve — or Eva.