In a blurb I wrote in my ‘Best of 2005’ list, I declared “A Bittersweet Life” to be “one of the slickest pieces of stone-cold machismo to slide across the silver screen since ‘Scarface.”‘ Well, I think we have a strong challenger for that title in Zach Snyder’s “300.” The latest film adaptation of a Frank Miller limited series comic book, “300” tells the tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., where a small contingent of 300 Spartan warriors held the mighty Persian army at bay for three days, enough time to allow the rest of Greece’s bickering city-states to assemble a united front, in particular Athens’ navy, in defense of their nation.
The film opens with a brief tutorial on the Spartan way of life. We learn that newborn male Spartans not deemed perfect are tossed over a cliff to their death, and those that are spared are trained to kill from the time they can walk. At age seven, Spartan children are sent to the wilderness to fend for themselves for several years, and those that survive return as true Spartan men. One such survivor is King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, “Beowulf & Grendel”), who holds court over Sparta with his headstrong queen Gorgo (Lena Headey, “The Cave”).
One morning, an emissary of the Persian Empire arrives brandishing the skulls of conquered kings, and demanding that Sparta submit tribute to the Persian Emperor Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Not one to take any guff, Leonidas promptly boots the emissary down a well, assembles a squad of 300 of his personal warriors, and heads off the massive advancing Persian army (numbering, most historians agree, at a minimum of 400,000 infantry troops) at a narrow rock formation called Thermopylae, also known as “The Hot Gates”, where dismembered limbs and copious amounts of CGI blood soon fly.
This is one of those movies where all the characters are drawn with the broadest of strokes. The Persians are all black sexual deviants with a penchant for body piercing, and the Spartans are all white psychopaths with supermodel physiques who would rather have sex with their swords than with their wives. Never have so many buffed up, sweaty male bodies been collected on screen at once this side of a gay gang-bang porn flick. Hell, I half expected digitally recreated Oliver Reed and Alan Bates to run onscreen and start wrestling.
The performances are as one-dimensional as the characters. Essentially, the Persians stand around getting impaled and dismembered, while the Spartans run around in leather underwear waving their arms and yelling “SPARTA!!” over and over. And that pretty much sums up the movie. There’s not much to work with, but for this sort of movie, it’s the style that counts, and as you can probably tell from the trailers, “300” is first and foremost an exercise in style.
Director Zach Snyder’s (“Dawn of the Dead”) approach to “300” is to eschew realism in order to recreate the look and feel of the comic book frames, much like Robert Rodriguez did with “Sin City”, another movie adaptation of a Frank Miller comic. Shot entirely against a green screen, the actors and their weapons “300” are the only real objects in “300”, and all the sets, backgrounds, vistas and auxiliary characters are computer generated. That freed up Snyder’s team of artists and computer jockeys (who obviously watched “Gladiator” and “Hero” about 300 times before commencing their work) to charge up the sepia tone and noir blue filters and run wild with their imaginations, littering the screen with all manner of grotesqueries and assembling images of savage beauty to great effect.
All the expected camera tricks and wire-fu action are present and accounted for, and it’s all put together with slick precision and a freewheeling history-be-damned attitude that reminds me of Julie Taymor’s overly ambitious take on “Titus Andronicus.” This creative freedom seems to have, in turn, emboldened the actors to chew the scenery with equal abandon. It’s obvious that everyone involved had a great time making this movie.
As far as the historical aspects are concerned, don’t concern yourself with them. After all, this is a retro punk imagining of a comic book based on a 1962 Swords and Sandals flick. There are a couple of half-hearted attempts to inject some geo-political musings on war and freedom with hilariously modern rhetoric. In particular, hearing King Leonidas passionately lecturing his troops about ushering in a new age of freedom was worthy of a full-chested guffaw. The King of a feudal society that prides itself on its savagery proclaiming peace and freedom? It would be downright insulting were it not for the fact that there isn’t a trace of seriousness in the entire film. As it is, it stands as a successful bit of subtle comedy amongst the violence.
Nevertheless, “300” is definitely a crowd pleaser, and there’s a little something for everyone. Men will get drunk off the bloody carnage and unchecked testosterone coursing through every scene before putting their eyes out on Lena Headey’s impossibly perky nipples. The ladies will go into convulsions at the sight of all those heaving pectoral muscles, chiseled abs and Gerard Butler’s rock hard bare buttocks. And for everyone in between, there are the Persians. Anyone going into this movie expecting a historical epic will be sorely disappointed, and will have cheated themselves out of an entertaining movie watching experience.
Movies like “300” are all about craft and presentation. The actors, story and dialogue are all incidental to the movie’s main purpose of looking pretty and making the viewer go “Whoa!” In that respect, “300” is very successful.
Zack Snyder (director) / Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael Gordon (screenplay), Frank Miller, Lynn Varley (graphic novel)
CAST: Gerard Butler … King Leonidas
Lena Headey … Queen Gorgo
Dominic West … Theron
David Wenham … Dilios
Vincent Regan … Captain
Michael Fassbender … Stelios
Tom Wisdom … Astinos
Andrew Pleavin … Daxos
Andrew Tiernan … Ephialtes
Rodrigo Santoro … Xerxes