Reviewed by Sam Hatch
What a difference Robert Rodriguez and his film Sin City have made! Twenty years ago, comic creator Frank Miller was a fan favorite (thanks to his wildly popular Batman: The Dark Knight Returns miniseries) yet received nothing but beatings and shame from Hollywood (see Robocop 2). Now that the vanguard filmmaker Rodriguez has stood up for the man's work (even going so far as to make him co-director on Sin City), Miller's back catalog is now considered highly lucrative. What's even weirder is that following Rodriguez' almost shot for shot recreation of Miller's artwork in Sin City, other directors now want to follow suit and recreate his source material as faithfully as possible.
Something like the film 300 would never have been possible ten (or perhaps even five) years ago. Sure, it may have gotten an option, but it most likely would have been rewritten to death and filmed as a generic sword-and-sandal action piece with none of the verve inherent in Zack Snyder's finished product. Snyder, who wowed audiences and critics alike with his edgy revision of George A. Romero's Dawn of Dead, is a visually gifted director who is perfect for work like this. Much like his forebear Rodriguez, he went to great pains to retain the look and feel of Frank Miller's original short comic, an oversized coffee-table book of the same name.
300 is an exaggerated retelling of the famed Battle of Thermopylae, wherein a group of 300 Spartan soldiers laughed in the face of devastation by staging an ill-advised last stand against countless Persian opponents. The idea is not to slavishly recreate history, but to use it as a canvas on which to paint stunning battle scenes and outlandish imagery. Snyder even goes one step further than Miller by introducing multiple scenes peppered with exotic animals used by the Persians in battle, even though no such beasts appeared in the real fracas back in 480 BC.
If images of stampeding elephants charging into the fray feel tonally similar to The Lord of the Rings (particularly The Return of the King), they're not the only ones. The golden fields surrounding Sparta had me thinking of the Pelennor fields outside of Minas Tirith. There's also a Gollum character, in Andrew Tiernan's deformed version of the historical turncoat Ephialtes, though at first he reminded me an awful lot of John Leguizamo in Spawn. He is spurned because of his disabilities and sides with the enemy to exact revenge, gaining access to many nubile hotties in the process.
Which leads to the nudity, of which there is a generous helping throughout. There's the nude young girl forced to pleasure the leprous Ephors (a group of nasty looking mystics, one of whom looks remarkably like 'That Yellow Bastard' from Sin City) when she's not channeling the will of their Oracle. For all of the nipple shots it is a remarkably tasteful scene, and the twisted contortions she undergoes while surrounded by the wispy smoke trails of the higher entity reminded me of video director Chris Cunningham's underwater stylings on the video for the Portishead song 'Only You'.
And for those hankering to see some "sweaty mens" in nothing but tight leather shorts, hanker no more. A friend of mine once said that Ridley Scott's Gladiator was a gay recruitment film. If so, consider this the graduating class thesis from those who were recruited. While King Leonidas (Gerard Butler of The Phantom of the Opera) oft renounces the Athenian Greeks as ‘boy-lovers', give him a whistle and some house music and he's ready to star in The 300 Blows. (Sorry - couldn't refuse a trashy reference mixed with a high art reference.) But no, he's all man, and so is his wife Queen Gorgo, played by The Brothers Grimm's Lena Headey. She gives a spirited performance, and announces early on that the women of Sparta are just as much a force to be reckoned with as their husbands. "Only Spartan women give birth to real Spartan Men" she snorts when a Persian emissary questions her presence during negotiations.
Later, when she is forced to comply with a naughty council leader's sexual desires (all in the name of securing more troops for her hubby), you fully expect the King to come back at some point to dole out some swift retribution. Thankfully, Queen Gorgo herself is more than up to the task of representing and avenging herself, and the scene in which she bests Dominic West's slimy orator Theron is a rousing, clap-inducing hoot.
The main thrust of the story however, is what everyone bought tickets to see – Leonidas and his team of Spartan mother-truckers taking down legions of Persians with style. And 300 does not disappoint. Upon hearing that the Persian leader Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, the much hated Paolo from the newest season of Lost) requests that Sparta accept him as their God, Leonidas bristles at the notion and sets off to gain the Oracle's support for full on war. When his wishes are denied, he skirts around holy will by going on a stroll with 300 of his best bodyguards accompanying him… just in case. Of course, he ultimately plans on blocking the Persians' path once they arrive by sea, thereby channeling them into a narrow mountain pass in order to slaughter them piecemeal as they arrive.
After a beautifully rendered vista showing the Persian fleet wracked by ominous storms, the land-based encounters occur quickly, and they're doozies. With again more similarities to The Lord of the Rings, Xerxes has gathered a rogues' gallery of exotic soldiers, one of the first to arrive being ‘The Immortals', shadowy Ninja-cum-Samurai who wear all black and carry twin swords on their backs. Leonidas intends to ‘put their name to the test', and boy does he.
The fight scenes are violent; yet don't retain any of the chaos inherent in real-life struggles. No sensory-overload Saving Private Ryan collages occur, as the emphasis is on slow-motion recreations of the original comic panels. Oddly, whereas comics attempt to make themselves more film-like by altering the size of the art panels in an effort to force the eye to move more rapidly across the page, films like 300 attempt to reduce the action on screen to more accurately reflect the frames of the comic book. You can say it's a weird case of film embracing the comic medium's handicapped inability to recreate the movement of film.
Sure, limbs are severed and gore geysers spew all over the beach, but the ensuing battle scenes come off as dreamlike and slightly meditative, and through the generous use of slow motion it seems that each warrior has an eternity to decimate his enemy with pinpoint precision. Once enough of the oncoming Persians have been dispatched, Leonidas and his men begin using them as human mortar in their wall, adding insult to injury.
There is a load of pitch-black humor in the script, and while the dialogue can come off as goofy to some, I loved the silliness of the heightened bravado and countless taunts to the enemy. It's the kind of courage you only find in the real world in acne-ridden kids hiding behind a dungeon-master's screen with a fistful of 20-sided dice. But it's damned fun in a movie like this. Thankfully, the script doesn't attempt to soften the absurdity of it all with too many scenes of ‘importance' (as in Armageddon, when they actually expect you to cry over one character's death when you've been watching the silliest shit imaginable for an hour and a half straight), but wisely allows the over the top machismo to continue boiling over.
Xerxes may be the tonal opposite of Leonidas when it comes to politics, but he does enjoy exhibiting his buff physique just as much as the six-pack sportin' Spartans. Santoro cuts a striking figure, and looks like a gigantic, gilded drag queen. Imagine Ru-Paul combined with Jaye Davidson's Ra from Stargate, and you're in the neighborhood. His voice sounds digitally tweaked to create an unnerving, bassy presence, and his pupils are likewise enlarged to the point of demonic appearance. Apparently the only thing that matters to him more than adding more jewelry to his face is ensuring that his subjects recognize him as a bonafide deity. Leonidas hates subservience as much as he hates facial piercings, so you know things are gonna get ugly.
The struggles between both combatants in this film have been lately interpreted as an allegory for George W. Bush's war campaign in Iraq. People are reading the Spartan's thirst for freedom as an exposé of the Bush administration's bloodthirstiness and aggressive behavior being justified by the notion of democracy. However, if any allegorical template is to be applied, I find the reverse scenario to be just as appropriate – i.e. Xerxes as a Bush-like god-ruler who will grant his subjects freedom as long as they bow to his greatness. The multicultural hordes of the Persians can easily be applied to the massive multinational military presence in Iraq, and the outnumbered Spartan rebels can easily be related to the Iraqi insurgents fighting off an American presence against all odds. I think this rules out any official allegory on the part of the filmmakers and just goes to show that there is a level of applicability at play. This applicability does appear to be flexible enough to suit a number of particular viewpoints, and once these cross one another out you're left with a freakin' gladiator movie loaded with kick ass visuals and battle scenes – which is what I personally got from the film.
Apart from the unbridled violence, folks will be coming for the sheer visual spectacle of it all, and as yet another entry in the ‘stage filmed' action movie (most of the acting was done against a bluescreen) it doesn't disappoint. The early introduction scenes exposing Leonidas' upbringing as a never-say-die Spartan warrior are beautiful pieces of art. I particularly loved how the CGI snow in one scene in which the young boy Leonidas does battle with a very Frank Frazetta-like wolf almost melds into the air-borne embers from the campfire scene that follows. Though if Roger Ebert hated Gladiator for the alleged sunless world it created, he's gonna hate this one - since the bleached landscaped is even more drastic here.Complaints about the acting are valid, as some of the minor characters come off as rather stilted at times. But there's always the counter-argument that folks aren't coming to something like this for unadulterated thespianism and masterful dialogue. Shaking spears – yes. Shakespeare – no. It delivers what it promises, and for that I am grateful. When the DVD arrives it will definitely find a home in my player for ‘manly' movie nights with my pelt-clad warrior friends from the highlands. We'll watch Conan the Barbarian and this, and then we'll close the blinds, put whistles around our necks and crank up the house music.