I don't know whether you've ever seen a nerd in a fistfight, but you can get some idea of the pathetic, grotesque spectacle - and of just about everything that's wrong with the contemporary American cinema - from watching the ridiculously puffed-up 300, adapted by director Zack Snyder from Frank Miller's graphic novel account of the battle of Thermopylae. Here's a film that thrusts out its chest, waves its fists and opens its mouth to let forth one almighty cry of war - only for long strings of binary code, a few trivial titbits on ancient warfare, and some very bad dialogue indeed to emerge in its place.
Snyder's Sparta is "no place for weakness... only the hard, only the strong" - i.e. the classical world's equivalent of a provincial town centre after hours on a Saturday. First seen beating up his own ten-year-old son - it's for his own good, you understand - our hero King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) is growing increasingly narked at the Persian ruler Xerxes' demands that he submit to Persia's will. After flexing his stomach muscles, and consultation with a semi-dressed oracle ("Sparta chose only the most beautiful girls as oracles," our helpful narrator explains, something of a boon for producers casting around for vestal virgins prepared to writhe around with their bits on display), Leonidas rounds up 300 of his buffest countrymen to start brawling and bellowing.
And boy, is 300 loud: between the clanking of swords on shields or bone, the industrial guitar riffs, and the sudden, deafening choral bursts, it doesn't really need a certificate as an official warning from the noise pollution folk. Never mind the gruesome business of Thermopylae itself, the whole film appears to have been conceived as an assault on the eyes and ears. Snyder, a commercials director who - as the Dawn of the Dead redo suggested - never met a filter or a visual effect he didn't like, goes for a grainy, washed-out approximation of Miller's frames that is at once far less skilful or striking than Robert Rodriguez's work on that other Miller adaptation Sin City, with its bold use of monochrome and colour.
What a bizarre aesthetic this is: part prog rock album cover, part fever dream of the D&D enthusiast, part Tom of Finland beefcake fantasia. (Rodrigo Santoro's waxed, oiled and multiply pierced Xerxes appears to have been generated by the world's gayest master computer.) Yet while the script offers plentiful flirty barrackroom badinage (and something about "offering your backside to the Thespians"), what's absent is the leavening humour Rodriguez took delight in, or any sense that those involved with this production knew it was camp nonsense. It curdles, very quickly, from preposterous to plain pompous; there were more laughs in Troy.
In the meantime, the largely anonymous cast hit their marks before the green screens and play Top Trumps with their torsos: Snyder's Sparta is the kind of place where an eight-pack bests a six-pack every time, and I started wondering whether the director was using 300 as a showreel to land a gig making adverts for those products with names like The Abdominizer you sometimes see demonstrated on obscure cable channels. But what use is a washboard stomach when you haven't got a head? So much of this rippling muscle ends up as offal before the end credits that the viewer might well consider cancelling their gym membership and stocking up on Haagen-Dazs instead. Booed off the screen in Berlin, it'll take quite some film to surpass this guffy show of force as the year's emptiest; as Dominic West, doing what passes for acting here while ravishing Lena Headey's Spartan Queen, sneers it: "This will be over quickly. You will not enjoy it." He's half-right.
300 is available on DVD through Warner Home Video; a sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday, and is reviewed here.