March 13, 2007

Movie Review: 300

Posted in Movies at 12:29 am by Calico Jack

If the ancient Grecians had been alive today to recount their legendary exploits, I suspect they might have made a film such as 300, with its epic battles and sensual decadence suffusing nearly every minute of its running time. Connected by the most slender of threads to reality, but closely hewing to Frank Miller’s acclaimed graphic novel from which this film derives its look and tone, 300 is a feast for the eyes. Unfortunately, it falls rather short when compared to other, more substantial war epics such as Braveheart or the underrated Troy.

Taken on its own terms, however, 300 entertains through bombastic spectacle and excess in almost every way imaginable. Gerard Butler, most commonly remembered for his role in the cringe-inducing Phantom of the Opera, bellows his way through a nearly two-dimensional performance as Leonidas, king of Sparta and last remaining defender of the Western world against the invading Persians. Overshadowing her husband for much of the film as the real power behind the throne is Queen Gorgo, played with near-perfection by Lena Headey. In one pivotal scene, Gorgo declares herself a typical Spartan woman — devoted to her husband and her king, but fully capable of ruling Sparta while Leonidas and his men go off to war. It is striking to see how authentically this juxtaposition unfolds, as Gorgo is something of a rarity in today’s cinema: a feminist who reveres her family, but is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to save her country.

Ignoring the wishes of Sparta’s ruling council, Leonidas assembles 300 of his finest soldiers and heads north to make a valiant stand against the self-proclaimed god-king Xerxes and his massive army. Xerxes, as played by Rodrigo Santoro, is a glistening, sexually ambiguous giant of a figure who seems to speak reason to the vastly outnumbered Spartans, offering them autonomous rule if only they bow the knee to their conquering emperor. Leonidas, of course, will have none of that; he fights for freedom, and both he and his men know no better fate than to die with glory and honor on the battlefield. The audience is often reminded of this through a third-person narration by trusted soldier Dalios (David Wenham), which overlays the length of the film. Some narration is needed to set the the plot and compress necessary events; but after being reminded of the great king’s iron resolve for the fourth or fifth time, the repetitiveness wears a bit thin.

Against overwhelming odds the Spartans stand and fight, hewing limbs and stabbing throats with an intensity not seen on film in a rather long time. Director Zack Snyder elaborately choreographs these sepia-toned dances with death by first speeding up spear- and swordplay, then shifting the camera into slow motion in order that the audience might fully appreciate the streams of blood arcing across the screen as Persian warriors writhe and flail against a Nine Inch Nails soundtrack. Make no mistake: 300 is constantly bloody, although this same violence also provides the film some of its most visually poetic moments. It is no accident that the Spartans’ cloaks are the same crimson hue as the blood which splashes everywhere; these warriors know death well, and are unafraid to give their lives for a greater cause.

Larger themes of self-sacrifice, honor and duty are almost lost in the latter half of the film when battle scene follows battle scene, suggesting that the true purpose of 300 is to provide an endless depiction of soldiers being skewered and hacked. The literal wall of bodies behind the Spartan phalanx grows ever larger, even as they realize their survival is increasingly hopeless. Yet to a man, they choose to continue fighting; there is no room for equivocation or self-doubt in the Spartan’s warrior code. The last ten or fifteen minutes redeem the previous hour of nonstop bloodshed, as a rousing climax and denouement bring the story full circle and punctuate the idea that (to use a tired cliché) freedom is not free.

It is hard to fault Leonidas and his men for being one-note characters, because turning them into warriors who question their cause would be a contrivance of the worst kind. However, 300 would have been a stronger film had it cut back on a few of its histrionics. Once the point has been made that the Spartans are eager to give their lives for freedom and a glorious death on the battlefield, there is no need to repeatedly bash the audience over the head with something they already know.

Unfortunately, many people in the theater seemed to miss 300‘s theme of self-sacrifice altogether, instead hooting at the occasional displays of nudity and cheering during particularly violent death scenes. Nonetheless, perpetual grandiosity is what prevents 300 from being anything more than an always-entertaining film. 300 aspires to greatness, but arresting visuals cannot cover a weaker script. Instead, it must content itself with merely being good; and in today’s cinema, that is praise enough.

B.

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