300, the ancient-Greek military adventure adapted from the graphic novel by Frank Miller, is drenched in sex and violence and boasts a repetitive, forward-reeling momentum that makes it feel like the longest videogame cut scene in history. (I kept thinking the bald dude from God of War would totally kick the Spartans’ asses.) If it were only brutish spectacle, executed with the inescapable élan that Miller’s stark and exciting combinations of word and image always brings to the printed page, it could be an invigorating diversion from the more nuanced, and infinitely more taxing, struggles of the real world. But with its fetishistic depiction of the nearly naked male body as nothing more or less than a merciless instrument of warfare, it fills a much-needed gap between gay porn and recruitment film.
Don’t get me wrong. Gerard Butler makes a fine piece of beefcake and gives a solid performance, shouted and snarled, as King Leonidas, who led 300 hale and hardy Spartans on a daredevil mission against the feared armies of Persia just to prove a point. And I appreciate the aesthetic value of nudity and near-nudity in film. The acres of flesh on display here lend some human appeal to a movie that’s dominated by inhumanity — not just the fearsome spectacle of endless impalements on spear and blade, but the equally oppressive exaltation of the green-screen epic, with its digital backdrops replacing real space and living imagery.
Other than the Spartan warriors, looking bronzed, muscular and oddly vulnerable in their red capes and Speedo-like battle-garb, the bulk of the movie is populated by misshapen freaks and nancy boys who stand between the 300 and their glory. There’s Ephialtes, a hunchback who turns weasel after Leonidas won’t permit him to fight. There’s an amusing scene where Leonidas mocks a larger army of Arcadian Greeks populated by weekend warriors (LOL, pwned). The fierce king Xerxes himself is depicted as a flamboyant, delusional cretin whose jeweled, many-pierced body signals him as less of a man than his Greek enemies, who fight to the death to preserve the freedom of the Western world for its beneficiaries centuries hence.
Most interestingly, in light of current events, there’s also the lily-livered and treacherous politician Theron, who whines and moans to the Senate about Leonidas waging an illegal war against the Persians before getting a consummate smackdown. Director Zack Snyder swore to The New York Times this week that it never occurred to him that these scenes might give his movie the whiff of allegory. I guess we’ll have to take his word for it. But after Leonidas’ queen, Gorgo, delivers a speech that actually includes the canard “freedom isn’t free,” the film’s hyper-militaristic fantasia gains a distractingly lunkheaded music-and-lyrics-by-Toby-Keith political dimension.
I might glance past most of that business if the film was as visually splendid as its advance billing would suggest. But the monochromatic, VFX-saturated environment where every landscape is a digital matte painting and all the blood is computer-generated splatter makes for monotonous viewing. I got as much of the million-man-army business as I need in this lifetime in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and while I certainly admire what Frank Miller accomplishes on the page, I’m also pretty content with leaving that achievement on the page. Some of Snyder’s shot-for-shot recreations of Miller’s panels are admittedly arresting, but they feel more like graphic art writ large, splendid in their isolation from one another, than like elements of cinematic grammar. (While it was much more lively, Sin City suffered from the same formal problem, which it seems the filmmakers should have anticipated — why would you expect a string of images that are designed to work as narrative on a comic-book page to perform the same function on a movie screen?) The balletic action set pieces should be exciting, but Snyder leans on slow-motion like a crutch and insists on speed-ramping up and down to highlight his favorite body blows and dismemberments. It’s overcooked, like a skateboard video made by a bunch of high-schoolers who loaded up Final Cut Pro in the AV room.
To my eyes, the constant digital fiddling saps the moving image of both its physicality — I can’t believe any of this is impressive in a world that still includes the likes of Drunken Master II and Ong Bak — and potential beauty. 300’s ascension into the pantheon of reputedly awesome action flicks seems assured, at least until the next awesome one comes along, but I sure hope I don’t see an uglier movie this year.