Release Date:  March 9, 2007
Rating:  R (for graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity)
Genre:  Action
Run Time:  117 min.
Director:  Zack Snyder
Actors:  Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, Rodrigo Santoro, David Wenham, Vincent Regan

Filled with violent battle scenes, gory killings and some surprisingly explicit sex, 300 is a perverse form of eye candy. A war epic that arrives in the midst of the United States' ongoing war against Islamic radicalism, 300 offers, at best, only faint echoes of the current conflict. Its main interest is sprawling displays of hand-to-hand combat, aided by computer imagery that sometimes resembles a painting, sometimes a video game, but very rarely reminds one of a traditional film. How one feels about such an odd amalgam will largely dictate how one feels about this movie.

Gerard Butler stars as King Leonidas, who leads 300 Spartans in the Battle of Thermopylae against the armies of Persia. Woefully outnumbered, the Spartans – “baptized in the fire of combat,” a narrator informs us at the beginning of the film – fight valiantly, believing that, as the narrator also states, “death on the battlefield in service to Sparta was the greatest glory [one] could achieve in life.”
Things turn ugly when a representative from Persia arrives to demand “earth and water” from Leonidas – a sign of submission to the Persian ruler, Xerxes, ahead of the advancing Persian armies. No dice, Leonidas replies, shoving the messenger and his envoys into a giant pit.

With that, war is inevitable, but first Leonidas must seek the blessing from a group of Spartan mystics, without which no Spartan army has ever gone to war. And with that, the movie begins to go off the rails, mixing the spiritual and the sensual in ways designed to stimulate areas other than the intellect.

The mystics’ word must be respected; such is Sparta’s law. But they flinch at the king’s request, telling him that his “blasphemies” have already brought miseries upon the people. They must consult the oracle, which, in the spirit of the movie, is accessed through the agency of a barely dressed, beautiful young woman. Seductive images of the woman are followed by ugly scenes of her being taken advantage of by beings with “souls as black as coal” (the narrator again, who will soon drop out of the film, only to reemerge in the late-going). The king, knowing that he’s heading off to war the next day, makes love to his wife, and the movie “lovingly” pictures the encounter through a series of explicit images.

Although denied the required blessing, Leonidas defies the lawmakers and fields his army of 300 to face the Persians. His actions would inspire future generations – and, the film argues, preserve Western civilization.

As interesting as the look of 300 is at times, its origins as a graphic novel also reveal a weakness. These characters speak in the brief “sound bubbles” of that format, expressing ideas through declaration and exclamation, rather than through thoughtful discourse. Nevertheless, some of these soundbytes resonate. “Freedom isn’t free at all,” says Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), in defense of her husband’s decision to fight the Persians. “It comes with a cost – the cost of blood.” Later, a character states, “A new age has begun – the age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their lives to defend it.”

But it’s another quote that resonates above all others, spoken by a soldier, eyeing the battle and its consequences, who refers to the “grotesque spectacle” before him. For, all talk of freedom aside, what 300 spends most of its running time showing is not the origins of freedom, nor the bravery of fighting men, but a “grotesque spectacle” demonstrating how we pursue our basic instincts: survival, sex and a thirst for brutal, bloody entertainment.