Director Zack Snyder’s “300” is a video gamer’s wet dream. Blood-drenched and viscerally eye-popping, the film is almost all action, all the time, with some sex scenes thrown in for good measure. Put plainly, this movie has enough testosterone pumping through its veins to be banned from the MLB for life.
Why Hollywood didn’t cash in on the ancient battle of Thermopylae sooner than now remains unanswered. Even without comic book icon Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s graphic novel of the same name, the story is prime material for the silver screen.
The plot is simple. The year is 480 B.C., and Persian emperor Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is eyeing the collection of city-states called Greece for his next conquest. Spartan King Leonidas, played by a seriously jacked Gerard Butler (last seen as the titular character in 2004’s “The Phantom of the Opera”), is not amused. In fact, he’s mad as hell. Against the behest of the Spartan elders, the king handpicks 300 Spartans (all of whom have sons to replace them) and heads to Thermopylae to meet the 250,000-strong Persian army head-on in a suicide mission.
The film does not attempt to be a history lesson or deliver any higher message. Despite the fact the audience is supposed to remember that “few stood against many” and the 300 were free men fighting an army of slaves, no lasting mantra or theme emerges other than the Spartans were bad-ass warriors. Leonidas inspires his men deftly, like many a movie general, with coarse commands and one-liners from the back of his throat that many viewers have already heard from the trailer.
That said, this film is not supposed to be historically accurate, nor a vessel for a profound message or commentary. It’s hack-and-slash action to the core. It’s a comic book — OK, graphic novel (for the Miller faithful) — brought to big-screen glory. It is supposed to be a visual kick in the head, much like “Sin City,” the first film based on one of Miller’s graphic novels. Critics of the gritty and violent “Sin City” will not like “300,” but fans of the urban noir film will love it.
Still, this is a movie that glorifies one of the most brutal and unforgiving cultures in the ancient or modern world. Sparta was a place where unfit infants were cast off cliffs to die in groves and 7-year-olds were dragged from their mothers to train at a boot camp more similar to a concentration camp. The film, like the source material, glorifies Spartan culture, in which a wife tells her husband before battle, “Come back with your shield — or on it.”
The Spartans’ sole profession was soldiering because they enslaved an underclass to support their constant drilling, but this is missing from the film. Also absent is the superior Spartan hoplite armor, which, in the film, is replaced by muscles and a cloth Speedo. It makes sense to strip down the Spartans’ battle dress, however, as walking tanks don’t translate or move as well in film or graphic novel frames.
Snyder’s debut film, “Dawn of the Dead,” was a different take on the zombie genre, in which the undead ran about like track stars instead of lumbering around like, well, zombies. That movie, too, relied more on visuals and on-screen carnage than character development or overall message, so at least the second-time director is showing some consistency with producing some slick action scenes.
Here, in “300,” Snyder proves his mettle as a soon-to-be master of movie violence. While the scripts with which he has worked haven’t been the deepest or most layered, he does what any director should with that kind of source material. He turns up the volume, adds digital spurts of blood and throws caution to the wind when it comes to an MPAA rating.
“300” is not for the faint of heart, or those looking for weighty fare. It’s blood, guts and mindless glory — but, damn, they never looked so good.
“300” was written by Michael Gordon, Kurt Johnstad and Zack Snyder, and directed by Snyder.
“300” received three out of four stars.