Ancient history gets aggressively physical in 300, where the cornerstones of Western thought and civilization get reduced to bumper-sticker catchphrases and the war for the birth of the modern world looks a lot like a CGI clash between orcs and elves in Middle Earth. Faithfully adapted from Frank Miller's ferocious graphic novel about the legendary battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., 300's a mighty long way from the History Channel or those bloodless old Classics Illustrated comics this history lesson is overflowing with passion, rage, invention and relentless excitement.
Director Zach Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) translates Miller's muscular drawing style with the same kind of visual bravado that animated Robert Rodriguez's Sin City. Everything in this hyper-real pageant is turned up to 11: Colors explode, blood gushes and mountains loom impossibly high; even the lovemaking is violent. It's so butch it borders on gay camp.
Populated with gruesome monsters, sexy nymphs and most of all, brawny and stoic heroes who bravely fight against hopeless odds, 300's both silly and exhilarating in true comic-book fashion.
The baddest of the badasses is King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), the noble super-warrior who inspires his men while barking orders in the manliest of tongues a thick Scottish brogue. With the full Spartan army hogtied by government and religious squabbling, Leonidas is forced to ward off the massive invading Persian hordes with a small, elite squad of his best soldiers. Faced with an overwhelming numbers, the Spartans strategy is to force the enemy into a narrow mountain pass called "the hot gates" where the highly disciplined Greeks can cut through them by the thousands.
When not busy slicing and dicing foes, these muy macho Spartan heroes spit out jingoistic slogans that would be at home on any pickup truck fender; like, "Freedom isn't free" and "No retreat, no surrender." (All that's missing are "These colors don't run" T-shirts, but those would inhibit the constant display of oiled-up pecs and rippling abs.)
It's hard to miss the modern overtones in this epic culture conflict of East versus West, democracy and wisdom against "mysticism and tyranny" with serious end-of-the-world consequences but Snyder is less interested in politics than spectacle. He delivers, in a way that satisfies drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs' crucial trinity of "blood, breasts and beasts." It feels like a throwback "sword and sandals" movie, but with widescreen grandeur and a high-minded touch of Spartacus-style gravity.
Enjoy the ride but savor the irony that 300 champions the virtues of liberty and enlightenment with such glorious, bloodthirsty vigor.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.