A lot of manly physiques – 300 of them to be exact – go down in defeat in "300." But director Zack Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae is anything but downbeat. The three hundred strong are, after all, Spartans, and their stand against 250,000 Persian invaders under Xerxes is legendary.
And don't the filmmakers know it. Just about everything in this pea-brained epic is overscaled and overwrought – it's a cartoon trying to be a towering triptych. The dissonance between the film's heroic ambitions and its grindingly coarse treatment is rather amusing. It pays to remember that the film's target audience is teenage boys.
Sparta is rendered, without irony, as the ideal Greek city-state. Boys are taken from their mothers at age 7 to learn the art of war. The Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) does not think much of the rival Athenians, whom he dismisses as "philosophers and boy lovers." Far better to hone one's pecs than one's intellect.
When a Persian emissary demands that Leonidas submit to Xerxes, the Spartan honcho literally kills the messenger. Despite a lot of oracular mumbo jumbo warning Leonidas to cool it, he assembles three hundred – I guess it's actually 299 – stalwart hunks to go up against Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) knowing full well they all will die.
But for Leonidas, nothing less than the future of democracy is at stake (although his penchant for impaling every last Persian battle survivor isn't exactly the most high-minded of gestures). By setting a stoic example, and allowing other Hellenic forces to take up the charge, he guarantees his place in the history books. And the comic books.
By the way, don't be misled by all the Internet-fueled chatter about how Leonidas, or Xerxes, is a stand-in for George W. Bush. Never was a movie less of a candidate for an Op-Ed piece.
As in "Sin City," last year's foray into Frank Miller terrain, "300" mixes live actors with virtual backgrounds and computer-generated effects and gussies everything up in harsh colorations. But whereas the palette for "Sin City" was mostly brackish, the visuals here are replete with flaming oranges and burnt umbers. The battles are gaudy with blood. Once the fighting begins, about 45 minutes into the movie, so many heads are severed that I would imagine even Hannibal Lecter, had he been a Spartan, would have gone AWOL.
The Spartans, to a man, are fighting machines who look as if they've been spending quality time on their rowing machines. They look like cover models for "Muscle and Fitness" magazine. When they rampage over the Persians, we might as well be watching a WWE Smackdown, Thermopylae-style: "Leonidas vs. Xerxes!!" Pity there was no pay-per view in 480 B.C.
One longs for a bit of the hyper-feminine to offset all the bellowing and teeth-baring. But Gorgo, the Spartan queen played by Lena Headey, is as much a political animal as her husband. Slinky and patrician, she's a man's-man woman – she understands that only Spartan mothers can deliver Spartan babies.
The filmmakers load the dice somewhat by making Leonidas's kingly adversary such a twit. Xerxes may think he's a man-god but, with his nose and ear ringlets, shaved head, and jewels, he resembles a transgendered cross between Tina Turner and Sabu. Forget war fever. This guy's got disco fever.
I would love to see "300" paired on a double bill with "Apocalypto," another head-rolling contest with mythic pretentions and skimpy brain wattage. Better yet, why not pair it with "The Seven Samurai"? That matchup would definitely be to the advantage of Team Kurosawa. The great Japanese director understood that genuine heroes are not heroic 24/7. They are even capable of experiencing, you know, fear. In the world of "300," fear is the exclusive province of girly men. Grade: C
• Rated R for graphic battle sequences, sexuality, and nudity.