With 300, a blood-strewn retelling of that apotheosis of Spartan military glory, the Battle of Thermopylae, cinema has once again proven its ability to incorporate every other mass-media art form. Director Zack Snyder and his computer wizards have made the best example yet of the movie-as-comic-book.
Based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, whose testosterone-soaked storytelling has made him a genre favorite, 300 captures not only the look and feel of its source material, but its essence as well. Much as Robert Rodriguez did with 2005's Sin City (also based on Miller's work), Snyder does more than bring the story to the big screen; he replicates the storytelling technique -- the emphasis on action, the shifting visual perspectives, the constant posturing, the incessant wisecracking, the pulse-pounding visuals, the violently impressionistic backgrounds.
That's not always a good thing. Comic books, for example, are great at displaying action, not so great at unfolding narrative or showing nuance. Much of the first third of 300 labors, and the going is a bit ponderous at times. It's clear that Snyder and his fellow screenwriters (Michael Gordon and Kurt Johnstad) have their eyes set on the mayhem that follows, and aren't overly concerned about the set-up.
But once the action gets started in earnest, oh my.
Set in the glory days of ancient Greece, the film envisions a Sparta where glory and honor are everything, where might is seen as the surest protector of right. The Spartans, of course, are the mightiest and the rightest of all, stressing military power and discipline as the surest ways of protecting the freedoms they hold dear. Historians might well quibble with such an interpretation, perhaps noting that Sparta was often the aggressor and was not nearly as utopian (at least in the sense we understand utopia) as the film suggests. But then again, 300 is an ode to glory in battle, not to historical accuracy.
The mightiest of Sparta's mighty is King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), who rules with a just heart and a body about as buff as humanity will allow (it's unclear whether Butler's body is one of the movie's many special effects, but let's give him and his personal trainer the benefit of the doubt). True, there's a bit of political intrigue going on, what with the sniveling, conniving Theron (Dominic West) using the Spartan senate to try to gain power for himself and his buds. But for the moment, things seem pretty content.
But then Leonidas gets wind of a force coming at Sparta from the West, under the leadership of the Persian god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, covered head-to-toe in Hellenic bling). Against the wishes of Spartan lawmakers, but with the clear approval of his hottie queen (Lena Headey), Leonidas takes 300 of his greatest warriors, clad in little more than thongs, and heads off to battle Xerxes' far-larger army. His strategy: Force the Persians to come through the narrow pass of Thermopylae, where their numerical superiority won't matter so much, and destroy them.
Those who studied their ancient history know what happens next. For the rest of you, suffice it to say that the Spartans display all the requisite heroics, and those who die couldn't ask for a better send-off to the Elysian Fields.
The manner in which the combatants, both good and bad, are dispatched there's the crux of 300. Heads are cut off, torsos are speared, limbs are severed. Almost the entire film was shot with actors doing their bits in front of a blue screen, with backgrounds and atmospherics added afterward. The result is a landscape where golds (for power) and reds (for blood) dominate, where mighty beasts -- including rhinos the size of a locomotive -- are on hand to amp-up the pyrotechnics, where thousands of arrows can be launched into the air at a moment's notice.
This is not storytelling for the squeamish, but it's also not unduly graphic. This is comic-book land, after all, where looking cool is far more important that looking real. And heroism is a messy business.