Listen up, men!
But not kids!
If you thought "Gladiator" was a bit too stingy with the bloodshed, if you felt "Sin City" could have been more stylized, if you hate it when the masses refer to graphic novels as "comic books," this is your day.
For today brings about the release of "300," and it is the "Citizen Kane" of cinematic graphic novels.
This is a movie that revels in a time when men were men and women were women, and the men loved the women but spent most of their time fighting with other men, all the while spouting grandiloquent speeches about duty and country and loyalty, and the glory of a "beautiful death" on the battlefield.
It is excessively, cheerfully violent -- and it is gorgeous to behold. It looks like the world's most sophisticated and expensive video game, and I mean that in a good way.
In this sweeping and epic adaptation of the classic graphic novel from master-of-the-genre Frank Miller ("Sin City," "The Dark Knight Returns"), director Zack Snyder has created a jaw-dropping, surrealistic dreamscape filled with stunning images, simmering and seriocomic homoeroticism, a topless oracle-babe, a sexy queen, larger-than-life warriors, hot love scenes, cutting-edge special effects and battle sequences so ambitious, you sometimes have to laugh at the sheer audacity of the whole thing.
This is a film that never, not for one second, considers taking its foot off the accelerator. Once the battle is joined, it pretty much keeps going until the final fame, with only a few dialogue-driven scenes placed here and there to allow you to catch your breath, turn to your buddy and say, "Are you #%!#$!* kidding me!"
This is the kind of movie that throws babies off a cliff, literally. (Hey -- there's a reason for it.) This is the kind of film that presents battlefield beheadings with the same slow-motion poetry it employs for a soft-core sex sequence, and if you're offended by that, you're at the wrong flick. The blood flies and spurts with such force and velocity that I felt a little like one of those front-row attendees at a Blue Man Group show, where they have you put on a poncho lest you get covered in viscous liquid goo.
The blueprint for "300" is drawn from ancient Greece and one of the most legendary and important conflicts in recorded history -- the Battle of Thermopylae, pitting a small band of Spartan warriors against the massive Persian forces that were conquering much of the world, one blood-spattered territory after another. Snyder and Miller combine elements of the actual battle from 480 B.C. with other clashes between the mighty Spartans and the overwhelming forces of the Persian "god-king" Xerxes (as played by Rodrigo Santoro, he's a giant warlord with Jared Leto-esque eyeliner and more piercings than Christina Aguilera in her sadomasochistic heyday), but the essence of the legend is intact: At a point in history when an oppressive ruler was a threat to rule the world, a fierce king and his hand-selected army of just 300 warriors fought to the death to preserve freedom for Sparta and for all of Greece. Their valiant stance provided the inspiration for Spartan warriors and for other freedom fighters for generations to come -- and if you think all that sounds a bit hokey and pretentious, wait until you hear the narration in this movie.
They're not kidding around here. This is manly man stuff, with bare-chested studs with rippled torsos (did they have Bowflex back in the day?) becoming nearly orgasmic at the prospect of slaughtering the enemy -- or perhaps even better, dying on the battlefield in the name of Sparta. (After a Spartan captain loses an eye in battle, the king asks him if the "scratch" will hold him back. The captain jauntily responds that the Good Lord was kind enough to grant him a spare eye, so he'll be just fine. Now what's for post-battle dinner?) When fending off tens of thousands of men, not to mention a charging rhino and multiple elephants, they dig in their sandals and figure it's time to get serious. Outnumbered 100-to-1, that seems like a fair fight.
These men are bred to fight from an early age -- literally expelled to the wild at age 7. They'll return as Spartan warriors, or they don't return. On the field of battle, they're in their natural habitat. You half-expect one blood-spattered warrior to turn to another and say, "It doesn't get any better than this."
Though his face is covered with a tricky beard throughout and a battle mask for much of the film, Gerard Butler delivers an honest and three-dimensional performance as King Leonidas, who never strays from his convictions and never hesitates to put himself on the front lines. Perhaps the only stronger character in the film is his adoring wife, Queen Gorgo (the luminous Lena Headey). She doesn't just encourage her king to take on the suicidal task of fending off the Persians, she insists upon on it, telling him, "Return with your shield -- or on your shield." Something tells us she won't be tying yellow ribbons 'round the old Greek columns, waiting for her man to come home.
Dominic West is suitably slimy as Theron, a politician who plots against Leonidas while the king is away. Even as he tries to make the argument that Leonidas is engaging in an illegal war that will destroy Sparta, you just know there's going to be a scene in which he encounters the beautiful queen in a dark corner and places his filthy hands on her. Gorgo's moment of revenge is perhaps the signature applause moment in a film sure to have the fanboys hooting their approval numerous times.
Snyder directs "300" as the tallest of tall tales -- a vivid dream. You want realism and devotion to the hard facts, watch the History Channel. You want to experience the Battle of Thermopylae as a nonstop thrill ride, here's your ticket.