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Published: Friday, 3/9/2007

Movie review: 300 ***

BY ROBERT W. BUTLER
KANSAS CITY STAR
Gerard Butler (Phantom of the Opera) is Leonidas, the Spartan king who refuses to surrender to Xerxes, emperor of Persia. Gerard Butler (Phantom of the Opera) is Leonidas, the Spartan king who refuses to surrender to Xerxes, emperor of Persia.
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300 is an adolescent male's dream come true - nearly two hours of surging testosterone, spraying blood, and impossibly ripped abs.

The temptation is to laugh it off the screen.

But in the hands of director Zack Snyder (the Dawn of the Dead remake) and an army of unsung computer dweebs, Frank Miller's graphic novel about the ancient battle of Thermopylae comes splendidly, bone-crunchingly to life.

Make no mistake. This is a comic book movie. It's got a human cast, but they move through an environment that is 90 percent computer generated (not unlike Robert Rodriguez's Sin City). Though based on historic events, the movie is over the top in a way that only comic books can get away with.

Nor does 300 bear up under intellectual scrutiny. Despite all their talk about freedom and democracy, the Spartan citizen-warriors, who are the film's heroes, behave and think along lines that would have earned Adolf Hitler's stamp of approval.

But 300 isn't about thinking. It's about action. It's about 300 Spartans holding off an invading Persian army of millions, slaying untold foes before falling and by their sacrifice giving the rest of Greece breathing room to prepare a defense.

It may be one of the greatest examples of Kill Them All Theater in movie history.

Gerard Butler (Phantom of the Opera) is Leonidas, the Spartan king who refuses to surrender to Xerxes, emperor of Persia. Spartans, apparently, have little but contempt for social and legal niceties, since Leonidas' answer to Xerxes' emissaries is to throw them into a bottomless pit.

Though warned by the local oracle not to get Sparta involved, Leonidas hand picks 300 warriors to conduct an ad hoc campaign against the Persians. He blocks the invading army at the narrow seaside pass known as Thermopylae. And the killing begins.

The Spartans destroy a wave of Persian swordsmen. They vanquish Xerxes' cavalry. They withstand an attack from thousands of archers. They push trumpeting battle elephants over a cliff and into the sea. They cut down a charging rhinoceros. Heck, they even destroy a big ugly guy who looks like one of the trolls from The Lord of the Rings.

Then they break for lunch.

All this has been captured by Snyder with some of the most imaginative battle footage ever. The film's action scenes have been designed to simulate the act of reading a comic book. Snyder will freeze the action so that we can study it, advance it a bit in slow motion, and then jarringly bring it up to full speed. The effect is hypnotic, poetic, and extremely graphic. We're talking droplets of gore flying in delicate arcs from dripping sword blades.

Another comic book effect is the use of a monochromatic color palette. Sunlit scenes are bathed in a golden glow. Nighttime shots are blue. Sometimes the only color on screen is the red of the Spartans' cloaks.

Occasionally the movie returns to Sparta where Leonidas' queen (the very fine Lena Headey) is attempting to mobilize the Spartan army while fending off the advances of the Machiavellian Theron (Dominic West), who is willing to cave to the enemy in return for a good job in the expanding Persian Empire.

A warning. The deeper you look at 300, the more problematic it becomes. To maximize enjoyment it may be necessary to overlook some politically incorrect elements.

For instance, 300 is simultaneously one of the gayest mainstream movies ever made (look at all these beautiful, mostly naked men!) and disturbingly homophobic (Xerxes is an androgynous creep presiding over a gender-bending court). Or that it's xenophobic - the Spartans are models of Anglo Saxon virility while the enemy are swarthy Middle Easterners, inscrutable Asians, and arrogant Africans.

But taken at face value - and that's the way to enjoy it - 300 may be the Guy Movie to end all Guy Movies.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to pray at the shrine of Steve Reeves.



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