The Spartans fight to the last manly man in “300,” a blustery, bombastic, visually arresting account of the Battle of Thermopylae as channeled through the rabid imagination of graphic novelist Frank Miller. Rendered by director Zack Snyder in a manner very similar to last year’s Miller adaptation “Sin City,” except in full color, this is a steroid-fueled fever dream about self-realization through extreme violence. In the larger picture, the cartoonish history lesson inescapably describes a monumental East vs. West conflagration, which might be greeted with muted enthusiasm in the Middle East. Action addicts in general and carnivorous fanboys in particular will chow down on this bloody feast.
Possibly nowhere outside of gay porn have so many broad shoulders, bulging biceps and ripped torsos been seen onscreen as in “300,” a fact that will generate a certain bonus audience of its own; it’s not even certain Steve Reeves, the original “Hercules,” would have made the grade here. But then, this is Sparta, the Greek city-state where boys were separated from their families at age 7 to undergo years of training to forge a population of soldiers unmatched in strength, bravery and bloodlust.
Often referred to as the Greek Alamo, the Battle of Thermopylae remains one of history’s great last stands — a crucial encounter in the summer of 480 B.C., when the invading Persian army under Xerxes, often supposed to have numbered 250,000-plus, was bottled up by the Spartans under Leonidas in a narrow mountain pass by the sea known as the “gates of hell.” Although all 300 Spartans eventually perished, they killed innumerably more Persians and held Xerxes at bay for three days, giving other Greek forces valuable time and preventing a Persian takeover of the Hellenic lands.
Unsurprisingly, little of the conflict’s geopolitical import is conveyed in the screenplay by director Zack Snyder (the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake), Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon. A couple of variations to the side, script declares intense fidelity to Miller’s graphic novel, which first appeared across five issues of Dark Horse Comics in 1998 and was published in hardcover the following year. Miller was brought to the subject via his childhood enthusiasm for the 1962 feature “The 300 Spartans,” a somewhat threadbare, second-tier epic starring Richard Egan and Ralph Richardson.
Miller fans should be more pleased than anyone with what Snyder has wrought, as the director made a point of trying to reproduce all the writer’s visual panels for the film, while necessarily expanding them. Approach might explain the claustrophobia that cloaks much of the action, as well as the feeling that the film never breathes of its own accord. Although the sort of imagery found here and in “Sin City” — in which actors, shot in largely bare studios against blue-screen backdrops, interact in dramatically stylized worlds achieved through extraordinary visual effects — is relatively new in commercial cinema, there is also something secondhand and suffocating about it.
“There is no room for softness, not in Sparta,” we learn. “There’s only room for the strong and hard.” This principle applies to no one more than to the king, Leonidas (Gerard Butler), a bearded, rugged blowhard who, after explaining that Spartans are a breed apart from Athenian “philosophers and boy lovers,” proceeds to toss into a bottomless pit a dark messenger who proposes that he submit to the invincible Xerxes.
In the face of religious and oracular warnings to desist, Leonidas assembles his best and buffest, proceeds past a torched Athens and arrives at the coast, where the Persian encampment and fleet extend virtually as far as the eye can see. The battle proper starts 45 minutes in and only periodically abates thereafter, occasionally for the Persians to consider their next futile tactic and, back in Sparta, for its stalwart queen, Gorgo (Lena Headey), to overcome the vile maneuverings of council bigshot Theron (Dominic West) so as to send more troops.
Accompanied by a score that competes mightily to be heard over the roar of battle and the yelling of combatants, the action commences with the promised blackening of the sky by Persian arrows, which are successful repelled by the Spartans’ shields, joined together to create a single, shell-like armored unit. Attempting a head-on assault, the Persians are picked off by Spartan long spears like olives by toothpicks.
In a mordant downtime interlude, Leonidas’ men casually roam the battlefield administering the coup de grace to survivors, whose corpses are then piled up to form a giant wall their still-living comrades will have to confront to get at the Greeks. The enraged Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), a shaved, multipierced and bejeweled weirdo who looks like he’d be more at home on the New York club scene than on a battlefield, unleashes his metal-masked “Immortals,” a cretinous giant, a charging rhino and giant elephants, to little effect.
Snyder visualizes the mayhem as graphically and gorily as possible. In contrast to the monochromatic backdrops of “Sin City,” which were periodically splashed with color at key moments, sequences here are color-coordinated according to mood, location and timeframe; night scenes might be bathed in blue, as in tinted silent films, while a passage in a field is rendered in wheat tones.
Then there’s the blood, which flows like wine or a river, depending on one’s literary mindset. It would be impossible to count the number of soldiers run through with spears, swords and arrows, and decapitations abound in what finally emerges as an orgy of stylishly orchestrated violence whose only raison d’etre is the pure expression of a fighting culture’s ethos.
Seriously pumped up since his starring turn in “The Phantom of the Opera,” Butler cuts a fine leonine figure but bellows most of his bellicose lines, which become tiresomely repetitive as they underscore the obligations and destinies of Spartan fighters. Other male thesps largely declaim to one extent or another, so it’s a relief when Headey is onscreen, not only because she’s the only female in sight, but because of the intelligence and radiant womanliness with which she invests the queen. While her scenes with the adversary played by West are plagued by insufficient exposition and simplistic motivation, she shines with a now fully realized beauty and confidence that invite more fulsome opportunities.
Availing itself of the latest technical know-how, “300” is sumptuously realized. Strictly in terms of the dramatic logistics, pic could have used some overhead or otherwise orienting shots to clarify the geography, just as some visual grace notes expressing genuine human emotion, rather than just macho belligerence, would have helpfully expanded the film’s range of impact.