Before there was an Alamo — or an Agincourt, or an Iwo Jima — there was the Battle of Thermopylae, ancient Greece’s official entry in the “all-time great last stands” sweepstakes.
From a numbers standpoint, it presents a nearly unbeatable scenario: 300 Spartans, 200,000 Persians, one enduring legacy of Western military dominance.
One should not expect Zack Snyder’s “300” — a brash, anabolic spectacle of carnage and computer-generated abs — to provide a reliable academic account of the battle. After all, the movie is based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, he of the painterly pulp noir “Sin City.” No, the imperative here is visceral, and in terms of evoking the thrusting, clawing, gut-twisting blood lust of battle, no movie since “Braveheart” has done it better, or with less politically correct compunction.
Scottish actor Gerard Butler (once rumored to inherit the James Bond franchise, here with a butch-looking beard) gives a furnace of a performance as King Leonidas, the gallant monarch who bucks the authority of craven Spartan politicians and leads a hand-picked division of trained warriors to beat back the advancing “Asian horde,” circa 480 B.C.
Trained since birth to kill anything that would threaten his beloved Spartan city-state, Leonidas makes for a memorably single-minded, merciless hero. Whether he’s kicking a Persian diplomat into a well, or making firm, non-emotive love to his headstrong queen (Lena Headey), this is not a guy who wastes time with niceties.
His plan for victory, though far-fetched, promises to spill much invader blood: funnel the enemy into a narrow mountain pass, where their superior manpower will be neutralized, and shape his 300 soldiers (along with 700 or so scrubs from nearby Arcadia) into a phalanx of death. Using computer animation both on and around the actors, director Snyder achieves an autumnal, high-contrast look — bleak and foreboding, to match the heaving bloodshed to come.
Less artful is the way “300” makes the abrupt transition from being a heightened-reality historical war movie to a wily mythological cartoon, almost over the course of one scene. Jarringly, the viewer is bombarded with macabre fantasy images of 10-foot ogres and pansexual pleasure nymphs. The Persian king, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro from “Lost”), is just a tad over the top, a bejeweled, 8-foot giant with a lovely basso speaking voice tailor-made for laxative commercials.
Depending on the perspective, the undisguised pro-Western slant adopted by Snyder and co-scripters Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon will be either refreshing or troublingly reductive. When Leonidas’ queen reminds a fellow character that “Freedom isn’t free at all,” we’re reminded of similar admonishments and the modern leaders who use them.
>> Rated R (graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity), 117 min. Grade: B