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Graphic History 

I am man, hear me roar. Apologies to Helen Reddy, but that line popped into my head every time the Spartan army of King Leonidas -- all 300 of 'em -- braced to take on the hordes of Persian soldiers at the Battle of Thermopylae. Facing what the film's narrator describes as "the most massive army ever assembled" (and CGI movie magic makes it look a million-strong), and with their fearless warrior king in front of them, they shout out their solidarity louder than a passel of Marines trying to impress a drill instructor at boot camp.

And then the fighting begins -- lots of it, gloriously staged, shot in extreme close-up, blood and body parts flying, swords and spears running through torsos.

There's a buildup to the mayhem in this ferocious take on the Frank Miller graphic novel. You know right from the opening credits -- when the title spills across the screen in red letters, accompanied by lightning -- that this is a movie not to be trifled with.

Red is a motif throughout the film: crimson for the long capes of the heroic Spartans -- those capes cover short shorts and sandal boots, and not much else, so the six-pack abs of the main actors are always in the spotlight -- and maroon for the globules of blood that go splattering every which way when swords and spears (and one formidable double-sided axe) do their work.

But the film is also notable for what its makers did with the absence of and tweaking of colors. Rain and lightning come from cloud-filled charcoal skies. Flesh tones are reduced to a sort of sepia that makes the soldiers' bodies glow. Nighttime sequences are so devoid of color that the film might as well be in black and white.

This big, loud, brash movie carries a prescient message about the choice between diplomacy and war. When an envoy from Persia's King Xerxes, who fancies himself a god, arrives in Sparta to tell King Leonidas that he'll soon be bowing down to Xerxes, Leonidas -- a loving father and husband, a great ruler and, above all, a free man -- vows that neither he nor his people will do any such thing.

But a series of political and superstitious underpinnings get in the way, leaving Leonidas without support of the Spartan army, and sending him to fend off the oncoming forces with his band of 300 brave souls.

Director Zack Snyder (the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead) has gone on the record about his approach to historical accuracy, saying pretty much "to hell with it!" His goal here was to make a cool-looking movie that boggles the senses, shooting his actors on a stage in Montreal, then handing the film to the effects wizards that made it look like it was taking place in 480 B.C. Greece, with views over tall cliffs onto endless expanses of soldiers on land and ships at sea.

The battle scenes are gigantic to begin with, often shot in extreme close-up to enhance the confusion -- and then they get even bigger. As the film flies by (the two energy-fueled hours seem to pass as one), incidents of beheadings start to catch up with various other methods of slaughter.

But there's a lot more than just bloodlust on display. Character development and acting prowess share the front seat with the visual effects. Gerard Butler (The Phantom of the Opera) plays Leonidas with gravity, grace and "Spartan reserve"; he pulls off a terrific "we will fight to the death" pep talk to his dwindling army, all the while wearing a convincingly dangerous smile on his face (at the bottom of which is a pointed beard that could put your eye out). There's not a lot of female presence, but Lena Headey's Queen Gorgo comes across as passionate and strong. And if Snyder was going for "cool," he achieved it in the impressive entrance scene of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), a big dude with a deep voice and strangely shaped eyebrows who arrives in a very special mode of transport, a kind of ancient Cadillac.

Fans of the ultra-stylized Sin City will revel in this film. And don't worry if you haven't read the graphic novel, because 300 stands on its own as a fully realized, living, breathing comic book.

300
Don't Miss It
Rated R
Directed by Zack Snyder
Starring Gerard Butler, Rodrigo Santoro, Lena Headey

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