You have to wonder how the Dirty Dozen would have done going up against the 300. Yes, the Dirty Dozen had automatic weapons, and they played dirty. But there were only 12 of them, whereas the 300...well, you can do a lot of damage with 300 men if their hearts are in the right place. Based on Frank Miller's blood-spurting, bone-crushing comic-book series of the late-'90s, 300 purports to tell the story of the few (hundred) good men who defended Sparta from "the endless Asian hordes" a couple of millennia ago. They may not have won the Battle of Thermopylae, but like the guys at the Alamo, they achieved a moral victory that has resounded through the ages. They had moxie. They also had killer abs, huge pecs and little or no chest hair, not unlike the Chippendale Dancers.
300, which does its best to re-create the look and feel of Miller's work, one panel at a time, is so awash in homoerotic imagery that you finally just have to ignore it and get on with the business at hand, which is watching the Spartan warriors, uh, thrust their swords into the pliant flesh of their enemies. Movies like this live or die by their battle sequences, and although the battle sequences in 300 have a comic-book grandeur - endless hordes, vast landscapes, hellish skies - they're also a little perfunctory, one sword thrust after another. It's hard to blame the movie, though. There are simply too many Persians to dispose of, so it's like hacking through underbrush. And you start to admire the Spartans not for their legendary fighting skills but for remaining on their feet. I'd have keeled over from exhaustion.
I almost did anyway. 300 is a bit of a slog, and you're knee-deep in testosterone the whole time. The Spartans, it seems, weren't just manly men, they were super-duper manly men, which is one of the reasons they wind up coming across as kind of, you know, gay. From the moment they're born, they're tested for battle-worthiness, and those judged "too puny, too sickly or too misshapen" are discarded, like assembly-line rejects. Out of this purified genetic pool arises Leonidas (Gerald Butler), the future king of Sparta, who's shown as a boy slaying a wolf several times his size. We're meant to see Leonidas as Sparta at its best - a fierce warrior, a fair ruler, a faithful husband, with fab abs. But when he's unable to convince the rest of Sparta that the Persians mean business, he decides to take care of business himself.
He and 300 of his closest friends, that is. And the plan is to lure the Persians into a narrow mountain pass along the Gulf of Malis, so they can be picked off more or less one by one. The Persians cooperate to a surprising degree, all but impaling themselves on the Spartans' spears. But there are so many of them. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), their leader, has amassed an army representing 100 nations, and half the fun of 300 is seeing what he'll throw at us next - the so-called Immortals, whose immortality is quickly brought into question, a herd of elephants, who aren't around very long either, a burly giant straight out of an old Ray Harryhausen flick, basically everybody but Xerxes himself, who hangs back, resplendent in his makeup and piercings. So blatantly does the movie gay-bait this historical figure that you start pulling for him.
The Persians are demonized in ways we've become quite comfortable with over the years. They're barbarous, decadent and dark-skinned, whereas the Spartans, with their red capes and plumed helmets, seem like friends, Romans, countrymen. Is there a political message buried beneath the movie's carnage? Is Leonidas a freedom fighter à la President Bush, turning back those nasty Persians (i.e., Iranians)? Or is Bush closer to Xerxes, imposing his imperial realm on a band of brothers? All I can say is, the movie gets as worked up about spreading democracy as the White House ever did, and it seems willing to achieve those goals by any means necessary. Leonidas and his men fight so well not because they're members of a warrior culture but because they're free. Or so we're told. It looked to me like they fight because it's so much fun.
"A beautiful death" is what they're after, which the movie delivers in flying colors - browns and blacks, mostly, the images sepia-tinted, like vintage photographs. Taking its cues from Sin City, which was also based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, 300 was shot with real actors against blue screens, the backgrounds digitally painted in later. And this has allowed director Zack Snyder to meticulously reproduce Miller's panels, but it doesn't allow the movie to breathe on its own. Yes, it's a comic book sprung to life, but comic books are already sprung to life, graphically speaking, through composition and line. Adding actual movement almost seems redundant. But the images themselves are so carefully composed, so visually striking, so dynamic, that you may enjoy watching them roll by with an air of esthetic detachment.
Reduced to so many pictures at an exhibition, 300 turns out to be something of an art film. I found it surprisingly easy to ignore the graphic violence and focus instead on the graphic design. And I'm sure that's what the crowd I saw it with - 300 or so of them, almost all guys " was doing as well. Ah, the art of war.