Long ago, there reigned a clan of Speedo-wearing militaristic psychopaths called the Spartans. They lived beneath a copper-colored sky, on a copper-colored land, amidst copper-colored fields, in copper-colored homes made from copper-colored stone. Legend has it they would outline their copper-colored pecs and abs with ash to enhance their manly buffness, and yet these were men of action and honor, not "philosophers and boy lovers" like their namby-pamby rivals the Athenians.
Lunatic machismo was cultivated early. From the age of 7, Spartan boys were trained in the art of humorlessness and made to beat each other into submission. Little is known of the Spartan women, but scholars assume they were fierce.
Spartans were men of few words. They spoke in a language composed almost entirely of monosyllabic stupidities. In that strange time, among those strange people, a voice rang out perpetually from the heavens. No one knows who spoke it, but historians agree that this holy text was silly and repetitive and devoted by and large to what they now term "the totally butch awesomeness" of Spartan deed. History remembers their ethos: "Only the hard and strong may call himself Spartan. Only the hard. The strong." It remembers their war cry: "For honor's sake, for duty's sake, for glory's sake, we march. We march." And the immortal words of their fateful end: "We are undone! Undone, I tell you!"
Such magnificent verbiage was memorialized by Frank Miller and incorporated into the text of 300, his graphic-novel retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, in which the titular quantity of Spartan studs fended off a billion gazillion Persian invaders. Marshaling the full resources of high-end computer imaging and the full capacity of hardcore fanboy nerditude, writer-director Zack Snyder (he of the unexpectedly decent Dawn of the Dead remake) has now brought Miller's book to "life."
Slathering pancake makeup on its actors, then pasting them into digital backgrounds, 300 takes the synthetic blockbuster one step closer to total animation; its bland, weightless monochromatics make Sin City look like the grungiest neo-realism. It's a ponderous, plodding, visually dull picture, but the blame shouldn't be put on Snyder's skills per se, nor on his ambition to blur the distinction between CGI and photography. Frankly, it's the slavish, frame-by-frame devotion to Miller's source material that's the problem. That explains both the risible screenplay and the way the movie, for all its liberation from the real world, never takes full-winged flight into its own peculiar universe. Bogged down by respect for Miller's medium he's almost as faithful to 300 as Gus Van Sant was to Psycho Snyder seems to have forgotten that while comic-book panels indicate movement, movies can actually move.
The exception to the rule of inertia comes fitfully in certain action scenes, of which there are enough to satisfy the action-buff bloodlust the film seeks to aggravate and sate. Here and there, Snyder makes good use of the lesson of The Matrix, slowing the slices, dices, and decapitations to a digitally calibrated crawl, the better to relish all 360 degrees of their stupendous ass-kickery. Tolerate the lobotomized dialogue and some half-assed political intrigues, and you'll find a good 10 minutes of 300 worth posting on YouTube. You can never go wrong with rampaging battle elephants. Throw in a war-rhino, some silver-masked ninja magicians, and an 8-foot-tall god-king who looks like RuPaul beyond the Thunderdome (Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes) and 300 is not without its treats.
Delicacies of dismemberment aside, 300 is notable for its outrageous sexual confusion. Here stands the Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his 299 buddies in nothing but leather man-panties and oiled torsos, clutching a variety of phalluses they seek to thrust into the bodies of their foes after trapping them in a small, rectum-like mountain passage called the "gates of hell(o!)" Yonder rises the Persian menace, led by the slinky, mascara'd Xerxes. When he's not flaring his nostrils at Leonidas and demanding he kneel down before his, uh, majesty, this flamboyantly pierced crypto-transsexual lounges on chinchilla throw pillows amidst a rump-shaking orgy of disfigured lesbians.
On first glance, the terms couldn't be clearer: macho white guys vs. effeminate Orientals. Yet aside from the fact that Spartans come across as pinched, pinheaded gym bunnies, it's their flesh the movie worships. Not since Beau Travail has a phalanx of meatheads received such insistent ogling. As for the threat to peace, freedom, and democracy, that filthy Persian orgy looks way more fun than sitting around watching Spartans mope while their angry children slap each other around. At once homophobic and homoerotic, 300 is finally, and hilariously, just hysterical.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.