Shot almost entirely in a Montreal studio against a blank green-screen background - with golden shafts of Aegean light, rocky mountain passes, stormy seascapes, and other dramatic confluences of earth and sky digitally rendered long after the cast had gone - the film is a visually dazzling, mind-numbing exercise in gung-ho heroicism. (Even the blood is by way of a computer console.)
It is also, with its caricature depiction of the Persian hordes, a would-be blockbuster that draws unfortunate comparisons to today's conflagration in the Middle East. Like many of the battle pictures that came from Hollywood during World War II, 300 can be seen as simple propaganda, demonizing an alien enemy.
Zack Snyder, a filmmaking fanboy who comes from the world of commercials - and whose debut feature was 2004's remake of Dawn of the Dead - paints the Persians in 300 as purveyors of "tyranny and mysticism." Led by a towering, effeminate Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who is trucked around on a giant bier adorned with life-sized hood ornaments, these ancient Iraqis and Iranians are heavy into body-piercing and decadent orgies. Some are freakishly mutated. Others are transsexual. Many wear creepy masks.
And when word of the encroaching phalanx, with its divisions of archers and swordsmen, its spear throwers and elephants, comes to Sparta, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) is ready to ride out and defend the gates.
But the Spartan elders, a group of deformed pervs who keep a topless model on hand for oracular insight and nipple tweaking, tell the king that he cannot bring the army. So the king just takes his squad of 300 "bodyguards" - a crack band of career soldiers, trained from childhood in the savagery and skill of warfare - to meet and greet the Persians. (It should be noted that an additional 700 Thespians - from nearby Thespiae, where acting was a way of life! - joined the Spartans for the early stages of the battle.)
What can be said about the performances? Butler and company are totally buff, with bulging breasts and mighty torsos, biceps bigger than a mere mortal's beer gut. There are moments of grand declaiming ("Into Hell's mouth we march!") and bumper-sticker pronouncements ("Freedom isn't free at all - it comes at the highest cost") interspersed by long bouts of impaling, decapitating, kicking, punching and dying.
Back in Sparta there is Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who wears a revealing toga, loves her king hotly (to wit, the soft-core eve-of-battle lovemaking montage), and must now abide the scheming overtures of Theron, a duplicitous pol played by Dominic West, also known as Det. Jimmy McNulty of The Wire.
There's no question that Snyder is a talent; 300 is one breathtaking digi-tableau after another. But the dialogue is a joke, the performances have more to do with bodybuilding than character, and the lesson that the film imparts isn't anything to do with courage and military skill. It's about CG carnage.
Go tell that to the Spartans.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews. com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.
300 ** (out of four stars)
Produced by Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann and Jeffrey Silver, directed by Zack Snyder, written by Kurt Johnstad, Michael B. Gordon and Snyder, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, photography by Larry Fong, music by Tyler Bates, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.
King Leonidas. . . . Gerard Butler
Queen Gorgo. . . Lena Headey
Theron. . . Dominic West
Dilios. . . . David Wenham
Xerxes. . . Rodrigo Santoro
Parent's guide: R (violence, sex, nudity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters