Review: 300

"300" (IMDb listing) shoves the realm of digital manipulation and chest-thumping brawn past the point of no return. It's a fireworks show in the daytime, opening Christmas presents on December 26th, and porn without the penetration ... all in one. I'm not big on movies needing a point to be appreciated, but this is the first film in a long time where I asked: just what the hell are we accomplishing here?

In this loose impression of the Battle of Thermopylae, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, "The Phantom of the Opera") has found the invasion of Greece by the Persians to be far too much to bear, and he assembles an army of 300 Spartan warriors to join him and head off the invaders. Crossing dangerous terrain and fighting hordes of enemies of all shapes and powers, Leonidas finds his royal comfort in the glorious land he's defending, now left to a Queen (Lena Headey) who is having troubles of her own with deceptive officials (Dominic West) who want Leonidas dead.

Watching the furious "300," I was struck by just how much the film failed to hold my attention. This is a widescreen sandbox for director Zack Snyder (the dreadful 2004 "Dawn of the Dead" remake), and the filmmaker has his scoop and bucket all ready for two hours of highly metallic adventure, meant to please the comic book fanboys and their distant cousins, the drooling action fanatics. I'll give Snyder this much credit: "300" definitely accomplishes its exceptionally short list of goals.

Because of the success of "Sin City," "300" goes two steps further trying to marry the ink-smeared imagination of comic book artist Frank Miller and the rectangular needs of the cinema. "City" was a hoot, and a daring invention at a time when movies were aching for a fresh twist. However, "300" can't shake the bitter sensation of leftovers, even when its homage and majesty are dialed up to 11. Think of the film as a "Sin City" version of "Gladiator," with bits of "Flash Gordon" and "Xanadu" thrown in to keep audiences on their toes. It's an artifice-drenched mess, but a persistent one.

"300" is a literal pageant of visual design, and there's something oddly touching in the way Snyder is so completely determined to keep his film synched up to Miller's original work. There was nothing cinematically needy about Miller's explosive 1998 graphic novel, and I don't dare call this picture an adaptation. Snyder is merely reproducing Miller's vision on the screen, trusting the layers of special effects and sheer noise will act as the connective tissue between scenes.

There's nothing here that improves on Miller's labor or even tries to reinterpret the demands of the comic panel. It's just slavish and quite tedious fandom; a 120 minute-long, punch-drunk, shot-for-shot tribute (remember when Gus Van Sant was crucified for doing this?) to a piece of art that was doing just fine on the page before Snyder decided to merely photocopy it with a $60 million budget.

Action is the name of the game here, and if you like your epics cruisin' for a brusin', "300" will do the trick. This is an exceptionally violent film, captured almost entirely in slow-motion by cinematographer Larry Fong to best marinate all the combat choreography minutiae and spurting beheadings. It's opulent and indulgent cinematography, and there are some big laughs watching Snyder awkwardly stage sequences to best pose his cast in Milleresque positions; but the point of all this is not to satisfy dramatic hunger pains, it's to get your rocks off.

Led by a thundering performance from Gerard Butler (I'm just thrilled he doesn't sing here), "300" charges head-first into war. The Spartan battles make up most of the running time, but truthfully, if you've seen one slo-mo, flying-through-the-air spearing, you've seen them all. "300" tends to lose its intended "wow" effect about 30 minutes in, when it becomes abundantly clear the picture is never going to rise above its self-conscious visual blueprint, and the performances will never waver from their primal bellow. All the shimmering golds, disfigured monsters, and half-naked men with their ripped abs (sure to be the most paused DVD in the history of West Hollywood) won't change the fact that "300" is a one-trick pony, and thanks to Tyler Bates's Whitesnake-meets-Hans Zimmer score, it's a ceaselessly earsplitting one too.

Want characters and at least some taste of actual conflict? "300" is not the place for that. Snyder makes a sloppy pass at emotional interaction between the King and Queen, but he undercuts any progress with a writhing sex scene straight out of Shannon Tweed's repertoire. Snyder shows further distrust of his audience by having the character of Dilion (a hammy David Wenham, "Lord of the Rings") narrate throughout the entire film. This is supposed to be a visual experience, right? Why is there someone explaining the plot (a loose term) to us every step of the way?

"300" will tempt the adrenaline junkies -- the bash-ya-head-in crowd that craves slo-mo pummeling like it was mother's milk. I'll acknowledge that, but I stop at the line of personal endorsement. To me "300" was a rocket-fueled ride to nowhere steered by a captain that has demonstrated to me for a second time that the nuances of character and humanity, no matter how candied they might be, are way outside of his directorial range.

Filmfodder Grade: D+