EmptyBERLIN -- The Frank Miller experience continues in "300." This is the second movie to transfer a muscular story and visuals from a Miller graphic novel to the screen. Instead of the neo-noir, pulp-fiction theater of cruelty in the Robert Rodriguez's 2005 film "Sin City," "300" dives into the mythology of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Here, according to the graphic novel by Miller and Lynn Varley, 300 Spartan warriors went up against the barbarous hordes of the Persian god-king Xerxes and died valiantly defending Greek notions of freedom and justice.
Those turned off by the sex-and-violence cartoonery of "Sin City" can embrace "300," which screened Out of Competition here. In epic battle scenes where he combines breathtaking and fluid choreography, gorgeous 3-D drawings and hundreds of visual effects, director Zack Snyder puts onscreen the seemingly impossible heroism and gore of which Homer sang in "The Iliad." A raging hero mowing down multitudes with sword, shield and spear suddenly seems plausible.
The designed look of this alternative world, the abstraction and beauty of its topography, colors and forms, open up the human action to larger-than-life deeds and grand gestures that in a more realistic context would be pure camp. The film, which opens domestically March 9, will attract a sizable worldwide audience, skewering heavily male, of course.
Greece in the 5th century B.C. is a land truly favored by the gods, bathed in rich, harmonious dark chocolate, beige and gray colors. A prologue swiftly establishes the austere warrior city-state of Sparta, whose men are trained from birth to fight, to never retreat and never surrender.
The film's hero, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), has lived his entire life to fight this battle against the Persians. Its sole survivor, Dilios (David Wenham), is the one who narrates the tale. Messengers from the Persian army arrive in Sparta, arrogantly offering either capitulation or annihilation. Leonidas kills the messengers.
But political opportunism rules the Spartan Council, which insists that Leonidas consult the Oracle. This consists of beautiful young and drugged women controlled by sickly, corrupt priests. The Oracle refuses to release the Spartan army to its ruler as no battle can occur during an upcoming religious celebration.
So Leonidas has little choice but to "take a stroll" to the north with 300 of his best warriors as "bodyguards." He chooses to engage the Persians in the Thermopylae pass, a narrow corridor between the steep cliffs of the Aegean Sea. Here the vast numbers of the enemy count for little since only a few can go up against Sparta's best at any one time.
The stage is thus set for a cinematic meal: A succession of charges by Persian forces -- slave warriors, physical oddities, African animals, magic wizards and an elite guard called the Immortals in black Darth Vader masks -- is slaughtered by the 300. Snyder instinctively knows when to shift to slow motion or quick stop-action to catch the brilliant athleticism of his fighting choreography. This is thrilling stuff.
Then comes Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) himself, a bejeweled, depraved giant carried on a high tower by his slaves. The god-king tries unsuccessfully to seduce Leonidas in a homoerotic passage as the ancient world stands still.
But it is a deformed and pathetic creature, Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), an outcast Spartan, who betrays the 300 by showing Xerxes a hidden path leading behind Spartan lines. The 300 are doomed yet die "beautiful deaths."
Adapting Miller's take on Spartan battle wear, Snyder and costume designer Michael Wilkinson strip the warriors down to essentials: a helmet, shield, red capes, loin cloths and scandals in warm colors. All the rest is manly flesh. The Persians, by contrast, are dressed in all sorts of jewels, peacock color, gold, purple, black -- a hooker's ball of exotic, foreign and decadent costumes.
Snyder and his writers Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon open up a second front of villainy back home as wily politician Theron (Dominic West) manipulates the council against sending reinforcements and crudely takes Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) sexually. This is weak and unconvincing, but it does get the writers around the historical fact that the expedition against the Persians, fully supported by the city-state, probably numbered around 7,000 rather than 300.
Butler is a paragon of manhood as the fine warrior-king, but in a Frank Miller world there is no time for introspection and doubt, making him a two-dimensional creature in this 3-D world.
Headey, looking alarmingly skinny, seems more like a fashion model than reigning queen. Vincent Regan as the Captain is a man with a ferocious appetite for killing. All other roles are somewhat perfunctory as Spartan ideals overrule much of an inner life.
Obviously, the true stars here are the armies of technicians, designers, fight choreographers and cinematographer Larry Fong, who collaborate on this stylized vision of the ancient world. Then add Tyler Bates' robust, haunting and soulful music.
What isn't clear after two Frank Miller graphic novel movies is where this technique is leading. So far it has served only exaggerated blood, guts and sex. "300" suggests that it might create worlds of myth and fantasy not necessarily ruled by mayhem. If not, though, it's going to get old, even ancient, very fast.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Legendary Pictures and Virtual Studios present
a Mark Canton/Gianni Nunnari production
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: Kurt Johnstad, Michael B. Gordon
Based on the graphic novel by: Frank Miller, Lynn Varley
Producers: Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, Jeffrey Silver
Executive producers: Frank Miller, Deborah Snyder, Craig J. Flores, Thomas Tull, William Fay, Scott Mednick, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Larry Fong
Production designer: James Bissell
Visual effects supervisor: Chris Watts
Music: Tyler Bates
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Editor: William Hoy
King Leonidas: Gerald Butler
Queen Gorgo: Lena Headey
Dilios: David Wenham
Theron: Dominic West
Captain: Vincent Regan
Stelios: Michael Fassbinder
Astinos: Tom Wisdom
Xerxes: Rodrigo Santoro
Ephialtes: Andrew Tiernan
Running time -- 117 minutes
MPAA rating: R