Muscle-bound gladiator-porn reaches its highest level of achievement in 300, Zack Snyder?s testosterone-laden ode to beheadings and beefcake, based on Frank Miller?s comic book re-telling of the historical events around the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. One of the most famous last stands in history, the battle saw a small contingent of 300 Spartan warriors defend a narrow coastal pass against the invading Persian army, which vastly outnumbered them, and suffer defeat only when a hidden pass was revealed that allowed the enemy to outflank them. Miller took this already-legendary story of military courage and turned it into an amazing comic book series for Dark Horse back in 1998, bringing to the tale his trademark strong, machismo-filled storytelling, mixed with blood-hued, beautifully sketched art. This song of sinews and sacrifice was destined to be a true blood and guts thunder-epic when brought to the movie screen, and Snyder?s adaptation does not disappoint in that regard, especially in the gigantic IMAX version that many cities will be screening. Unfortunately, Snyder didn?t trust Miller?s pared-down, straight-to-the-point story to successfully please all demographics, and some awkward additions been made to the screenplay which threaten to derail the film and plunge the entire endeavor into self-parody.
Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), like most other men in his city-state, had a rough time growing up. Inspected at birth for physical defects (those infants found lacking were thrown off a cliff), sent to soldier-camp when still a boy, and exiled to the wilderness as an adolescent to learn survival skills, he?s a born fighter, and one who fears nothing under the sun except betraying his own sense of duty and honor. So when a bejeweled messenger of Persian god-king Xerxes arrives on his doorstep, demanding that he submit to Persia?s authority as most of Asia already has, Leonidas isn?t very hospitable in his reply. Instead, he throws the messenger and his entourage into a deep well, to their deaths. His fate thus sealed, Leonidas rallies his personal guard of 300 men and prepares to meet the assault of an army numbering in the millions, yet comprised mainly of enslaved peoples who fight under Xerxes? whip, in contrast to Sparta?s volunteer army of well-trained citizen-soldiers. Leonidas leads his troops ? as well as a contingent of other Greek warriors ? to a narrow pass called the ?Hot Gates,? where he hopes to gain a strategic geographic advantage over the Persians? greater numbers. And so he does ? after the Persians arrive, wave after wave of their soldiers break against the Spartan phalanx, and the bodies are piled high. But when Leonidas refuses to allow a hunchbacked Spartan exile to join the army and stand alongside his countrymen, a weakness is revealed to the Persians that will undo the Spartan?s advantage, and Leonidas and his 300 are forced to sacrifice themselves in order to delay the Persian advance long enough for the rest of the Greeks to assemble and defend their homeland.
Perfectly capturing the look of Miller?s comic through a revolutionary use of computer imagery that sometimes makes the image appear almost rotoscoped, 300 is a feast for the eyes, especially if your eyes like to drink in acres of naked man-flesh and more smooth musculature than a Tom of Finland comic. (Curiously, both the film and the Miller original completely avoid any reference to the true-to-history man-on-man love that Spartans were famous for, believing that soldiers would fight more valiantly if they were defending their brothers in bed as well in arms.) Easily eclipsing previous record-holder The Road Warrior in its use of gay S&M imagery in a major feature film, Snyder and company pile on the CGI six-packs and homoerotic battlefield bonding to such a degree that the movie almost drowns in its barely-submerged subtext, yet the sheer, delirious, chest-pounding entertainment value of the film is actually enhanced by the frequent slow-motion shots of a crowd of muscle-bound, nearly-nude men striding toward the camera (is Snyder exorcising some kind of penitentiary or bath-house fantasy here?) All the man-meat helps contribute to the over-the-top feeling that builds throughout the movie, which is also elevated by its hard-ass dialogue (like the historical ?Then we?ll fight in the shade? or the Miller-sourced ?Tonight we dine in Hell?), abundant gore (watch for two of the best beheadings in movie history), and miscellaneous grotesquerie (Xerxes? harem of deformed courtesans wouldn?t look out of place in Salon Kitty) to create an atmosphere not unlike a Grand Guignol Super Bowl, with a bit of New Orleans Mardi Gras thrown in for good measure.
The movie only slows down, sadly, when it?s dealing with a subplot that never featured in Miller?s comic, in which Leonidas?s wife (barely featured in the comic, but played here with teeth-clenching seriousness by Lena Headey) must fend off the advances of a sniveling politician who seeks to betray Sparta and ruin Leonidas. Dramatically unnecessary and historically inaccurate, these scenes bring the movie to a screeching halt every time they pop up onscreen, and are rife with eye-rolling, over-explanatory dialogue. In contrast, the scenes featuring Miller?s original writing ? and that?s actually a good deal of the movie ? are masterful in their brevity and conciseness, but are also often able to propel the story through imagery alone. This is only Snyder?s second feature film (after the Dawn of the Dead remake), so perhaps he hasn?t learned the lesson yet, but when telling a simple story full of basic truths and easily-explained conflicts, exposition isn?t always necessary. Comic books and movies are both primarily visual media, and the best-told tales are often done without words at all.