From the moment the emphatic opening narration begins, 300 is full of exclamation points. Admittedly, it's worthy of them—the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans and a sparse group of allies held the line against a vast army for several crucial days, lends itself to fabulist hyperbole, especially in the hands of Sin City writer-artist Frank Miller. Still, it's hard to maintain a straight face through dialogue that all seems to be delivered through a megaphone, and orchestral surges that seem to want to grab viewers and shake them to attention. Director Zach Snyder (2004's Dawn Of The Dead remake) put a great deal of effort into making 300 look like Miller's graphic-novel version of the story, which is to say, into making it so relentlessly artificial that it's hard to tell where the actors' bodies end and the CGI begins. But did every other aspect of the film have to be just as synthetic?
Gerard Butler (the Phantom from 2004's similarly histrionic The Phantom Of The Opera) stars as King Leonidas, the steadfast ruler determined not to let Sparta fall to Xerxes' invading Persians, in spite of the best efforts of corrupt priests and wily politicians. Throwing Xerxes' envoys down a well ("This is blasphemy! This is madness!" "THIS! IS! SPARTA!"), he takes his hand-picked 300 off to seemingly certain death, but lesser men can't stand up to their well-honed force. The slaughter that follows is as overblown, calculated, spectacle-driven, and just plain beautiful as any good wu xia film, but it's also tediously leaden, as lines like "Only the hard and strong may call themselves Spartans! Only the hard! Only the strong!" thud clumsily into place amid endless dramatic zooms, slow-motion beheadings, and stylized gouts of animated blood.
It's obvious Snyder is trying for Miller's specific brand of comic-book surrealism, but he achieves it so well that the whole film looks as though it could have been shot on a single 5-foot-square sound stage, and eventually, amid all the beefcake, windswept capes, and gore, the question of what percentage of any given shot wasn't manufactured wholesale inside a computer becomes more interesting than the question of whether the Persians' latest sally will succeed. Part of the fascination of the Thermopylae story is that it really happened, and it helped define real heroism. There's nothing remotely like reality to be had in this film.