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Blood tsunami

“300”Warner Bros. PicturesDirected by Zack SnyderWritten by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, based on the graphic novel by Frank MillerStarring: Gerard Butler, Lena Hedley, David Wenham, Dominic West, Rodrigo Santoro and Andrew TiernanRated R/117 minutesOpens March 9, 2007Three-and-a-half out of four stars

With spear at his side and shield at his fore, Spartan King Leonidas leads his 300 men into battle against a million invading Persians. Leonidas cuts through his enemies with bobbing, weaving, cleaving grace, an unstoppable killing machine, fueled by his love for Sparta…or is it his love for bloodshed? Is there a difference?

The camera savors every splashy, sanguinary detail, glorifying Leonidas as he glorifies death, relishing every dismembering, disemboweling, stabbing, skewering and slicing. The bulging bare torsos of the Spartan men seem to welcome torture.

What director Zack Snyder does so masterfully (and disconcertingly) well with his movie “300” is allow us to share in the zealous bloodlust, the thrill of separating arm from shoulder via a well-aimed swing of the sword. All of this violence is, of course, vividly stylized in the fashion of a relentless, very M-rated video game — or, more appropriately, a graphic novel, on which “300” is based. The action is so relentless we can hardly catch our breaths sometimes. Experiencing this movie is like watching “Lord of the Rings,” the WWF and “God of War” for the PS2 all at once. It’s stunning and a little wearying.

The film was shot in front of blue screens in order to duplicate the panels of the graphic novel, a la “Sin City” (another film based on the works of Frank Miller, who must have one seriously tormented mind). The effect is seamless and beautiful, with some shots worthy of being framed on a gallery wall: the golden wheat fields of Greece, the tumultuous oceans tearing Persian warships to splinters, a roaring mass of soldiers stretching out to the horizon.

All of this eye-candy — this chewy steak with the dripping red center — is meant to rile us up like a hungry audience at a gladiator match, which it does. So there’s an inevitable sense of letdown when we’re ushered away from battle and toward quiet moments on the home front involving Leonidas’ wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who speaks before an assembly of men, urging them to send reinforcements to her husband’s aid. We need a break from the action, but that’s exactly what the scenes in Greece feel like: a break from the interesting to the less interesting. You can’t come down from a sugar high without feeling sluggish.

King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) bellows his lines like he bellowed his songs in the movie “The Phantom of the Opera.” He plays a great leader: strong, unbending, willing to die for the greater good and capable of addressing his numerous troops in a booming voice (I always wonder about those soldiers standing in the way back — can they hear?).

Like all Spartan children, a young Leonidas was cast outside the city walls and taught to fend for himself. Why? So he could be a better man, a better Spartan, a better killer? In his world, there’s little room for distinction.

Is Leonidas a tragic character? There’s a scene in which he bids farewell to his wife and child before heading out to certain death, and the narrator informs us that Leonidas won’t tell his wife he loves her (though he does) because it would show weakness. Once a Spartan, always a Spartan. He’s a one-note character by nature, less compelling than the awesome battles he takes part in. Leonidas doesn’t change from beginning to end, which is the point, I guess. His example inspires his nation to action.

That’s tragic and thrilling.

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