NO one can say how many Spartans it might take to screw in a lightbulb, but the number needed to reach immortality is firmly established: "300."
That, hardly by coincidence, is the title of the highly touted action film delineating the news behind the news about the celebrated 480 BC battle at Thermopylae between those few plucky Spartans under Leonidas and an enormous horde of invading Persians led by the legendary Xerxes.
The Spartans didn't win, of course -- numbers, as Hollywood well knows, count for a lot -- but their heroic stand encouraged their fellow Greeks to an ultimately successful resistance that historians say preserved the influence of Western civilization and inspired 20th century creative types from David Mamet to graphic-novel visionary Frank Miller.
It is Miller's work of the same name that inspired director and co-writer Zack Snyder to come up with this epic piece of comic-book mythologizing, both stylized and stylish, that is one of those films you don't want to think too hard about. At least in the short run, "300" is something to see, but unless you love violence as much as a Spartan, Quentin Tarantino or a video-game-playing teenage boy, you will not be endlessly fascinated.
The Spartans, we are informed almost at once by the film's celebratory voice-over, were one tough bunch of hombres, a fang-and-claw "Fight Club" civilization so in love with combat that the only thing that made its members smile was the thought of "a beautiful death."
That director Snyder ("Dawn of the Dead") has spent much of his career as a highly acclaimed commercial director is apparent from the start. The film has a striking visual panache, a distinctive style of putting images on film that heightens reality the way a filmed spot for Chanel or a European brand of luxury car might do.
But while those commercials only have to hold our attention for mere seconds, "300" has to involve us for close to two hours, and that is more difficult. Snyder and co-writers Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon attempt to add drama, romance and intrigue to the mix, but they're not really up to it. Not helping either are odd bits of boilerplate dialogue on the order of "Freedom isn't free, it must be bought by blood" that manage to sound as if they were written by a politician.
Once the newness of "300's" look wears off, which it inevitably does, what we are left with is a videogame come to life. The problem here is not so much that "300" is "Apocalypto"-violent but that its violence is repetitive: Unless you are washed in the blood, so to speak, there is a limit to how often you can see soldiers speared and hacked to death and still stay involved.
First among equals is King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), married to the equally fierce Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey). The king earned his spurs by killing a wolf so huge and evil its eyes lighted up like a pinball machine at a glimpse of human flesh.
So when an effete emissary of the dread Persian empire comes calling and utters the forbidden word "submission," it's clear that things aren't going to end well. Never mind that the creepy Ephors, pestilent elders who leer at half-naked female oracles, don't want a war. The Spartans have their tough-guy reputations to maintain, and so off they march to confront their destiny.
With costumes designed by Michael Wilkinson, "300" pays a lot of attention to what its characters wear. The Spartan look -- tight metal helmets, giant shields, long red capes and what look like black leather Speedos -- is quite effective, though at times it makes "the fiercest soldiers the world has ever known" look like an especially fit group of Santa Monica lifeguards taking part in the Doo-Dah Parade.
The effeteness of the debauched Persians, on the other hand, is indicated by the multiple piercings of their leaders. The great Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), for example, is so weighed down by a costume consisting of 18 jewelry pieces, not to mention a dozen piercings, that he comes off more like an arrogant doorman at an exclusive bondage club than the unquestioned ruler of a mighty empire.
Once the armies lock horns, the only way "300" can maintain interest is by throwing a wild variety of combatants at the noble Spartans. While Queen Gorgo has to deal with a fifth column back home, her husband takes on a giant with awful teeth (apparently only the Greeks could afford orthodontia), hooded men who throw stink bombs, even what might be the world's first armored rhinoceros. Snyder's "300" certainly has its share of the latest toys, but they make for a better coming-attractions trailer than a full-length theatrical film.
"300." MPAA rating: R, for graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. In general release.