Review: ‘300’ treads deadly ground

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Whatever Frank Miller’s graphic novels lack in heart they compensate for with vividly conceptualized brutality and sensational bloodletting. Like “Sin City,” his hyper-violent plunge into a cesspool of pulp sleaze, “300” is a tribute to old-school machismo that plays like a prolonged adrenaline rush. In the hands of director Zack Snyder, fresh off his promising “Dawn of the Dead” remake, Miller’s stylized vision of the Battle of Thermopylae makes a seamless leap from page to screen, with its striking hues and bruising, artfully choreographed battles.

The story is based, however loosely, on the actual conflict, in 480 B.C., between roughly 300 Spartan soldiers, led by the fearless Leonidas (Gerard Butler), and the Persian army under Xerxes (Brazilian star Rodrigo Santoro), whose forces are believed to have exceeded 250,000. A suicide mission? More than likely, but the Spartans have a plan — to funnel the Persian forces through a narrow mountain pass where their advantage in numbers is no longer a factor. And it works, for a time.

Although “300” takes its inspiration from one of the most impressive last stands in history — one that would ultimately lead to the downfall of the Persian empire — it is less interested in the political ramifications of the battle than the carnage itself.

There is no shortage of intriguing characters — particularly Leonidas, his abandoned queen (Lena Headey) and Theron (Dominic West, of “The Wire”), a treacherous politician — but Snyder’s script is mostly concerned with blustery calls to arms and amped-up bravado. “Tonight,” Leonidas roars to his troops by way of encouragement, “we dine in hell!”

As much as “300” is an indulgent exercise in style, with Snyder gleefully focusing on every severed head and exploding limb, it makes for an enthralling spectacle. Leonidas is an archetypal hero who could havejust as easily sprung from Homer’s “Odyssey,” the kind of superhuman warrior Charlton Heston might have played. Butler attacks the role with ferocity, and his enthusiasm is infectious. His rhetoric (“No retreat, no surrender!”) is pretty standard, but when he leads us into battle, we’re more than happy to follow.

300 ***½

Starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Rodrigo Santoro

Written by Zack Snyder, Johnstad and Michael Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley

Directed by Zack Snyder

Rated R

Running Time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

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