About halfway through 300, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s graphic novel, the battle finally kicks in. We’ve been setting it up for 45 minutes — the brutal but freedom loving Spartans versus the sybaritic, slave-driving Persians, the tensions of tradition versus a giant army about to invade, and the ethics of personal sacrifice for cultural good.
300 brave Spartan warriors are facing off against an unknown but vast number of Persians. King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) suddenly strides out into the fray, his spear stabbing through all resistance. As the music heats up, director Snyder speeds up then slows down the action. With his horse-haired helmet, huge bronze shield and swirling red cloak Leonidas is a human video game character, all mighty thews and gritted teeth. It’s bravura and beautiful and nothing quite like it has been seen before.
I saw 300 at a screening a few months ago, but I was in a horrible mood and I saw it with a few writers at a small screening room. My comments that I posted then had to be taken down, and now I’m just as glad because after seeing 300 last night in IMAX, I was pretty much sucked in from the first frame and enjoyed it way more. This isn’t a frightfully intellectual movie—it’s as alien to the idea of subtlety as Sparta was to male sensitivity training. If you are in the mood for some impressive action, breathtaking CGI and a story that hums along without stopping to think too much, you will probably enjoy it very much and my advice is not to feel guilty about it at all.
The story sticks close to the graphic novel, and is simple: After a Persian emissary arrives to tell the Spartans to surrender to Xerxes’ glorious rule, Leonidas visits the Ephors, depraved policy-makers who need some Neutogena products STAT; they advise him that raising the army isn’t a good idea — there’s a festival going on, and the auguries are bad.
This makes Leonidas brood and glower. He broods and glowers a lot in 300, but Butler has that down cold. After a night of hot lovin’ with his wife, stately Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) Leonidas comes up with a plan to take 300 of the best soldiers and hold off some 250,000 Persians at “The Hot Gates,” a narrow pass that will negate the superior Persian forces. Hot Gates is a translation of Thermopylae, and I may be betraying my mid-century education by saying I always knew of this conflict as the Battle of Thermopylae and “hot gates” was news to me. Oh well.
From there it’s kind of like a video game where the Spartans must face ever tougher bosses on each level: archers, superduper Asian troops known as Immortals, a man on a runaway rhino, elephants, and what is apparently a cave troll . The most frightening foe is Xerxes himself (Rodrigo Santoro) who resembles RuPaul* modeling in a BME magazine. (This is taken straight from the graphic novel.) Xerxes is eleven feet tall and has the biggest irises ever seen on a human–he’ll spare Sparta if only Leonidas kneels before him.
Of course, no freedom loving Spartan could do any such thing, and more brave carnage and mayhem follows, all energetically shot with excellent choreography, lyrical CGI blood spurts, and the straining of the greatest assemblage of cinematic abs ever.
300 is a straight mash-up of GLADIATOR and LORD OF THE RINGS (Mumakil, Haradrim, Goluum/Ephialites) with the production technique of SIN CITY. If you liked those movies, you will like 300. The GLADIATOR references include similar music and similar scenes in wheat fields, and Lena Headey even looks a lot like GLADIATOR’S Connie Nielsen. Headey pulls off the tough, pragmatic Gorgo very well, however, both steely eyed and bare-bosomed.
The acting is not subtle, but it is good enough. After all the foofaw I’ve been putting on this blog for two years, you may not believe me when I say this, but the bulked up Gerard Butler gives the role of Leonidas enough humanity to make his constant glowering and yelling of Spartan aphorisms into a character and not just a cartoon. While he shouts so much you can count his anachronistic fillings, Butler also shows that Leonidas’s kingly heroism is rooted in a respect for his people and love for Gorgo. Physically, yeah he’s all that, too, whacking and stabbing in a grisly ballet. Santoro is creepy and egotistical, and the other half naked Spartan hoplites — David Wenham and Vincent Regan among them — fill out their greaves adequately. Like I said, subtlety isn’t the issue here.
There are some odd things about the movie picked up from Miller’s original — the Persians, the original Aryans, are portrayed as Abyssinians, which is goofy and will prompt many cries of racism. The film is already being cited as a parable of the Iraqi War, with both Leonidas and Xerxes standing in for George W. Bush, according to who you ask. Of course the original graphic novel was written before any of this was an issue (1998), and the story goes back some 2000 years, proving that some themes are eternal and those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. As with any timeless tale, parallels to current events of hubris, conquest and homeland security can be made; Miller’s recent embrace of a protectionist stance will probably sway many people one way or another. My own personal observation was that the Spartans unflinching resolve to die for their beliefs would probably put them in the front ranks of suicide bombers today.
The screening I went to was arranged by Frank Miller himself, and was attended mostly by comics folks — in this regard it was similar to a screening of SIN CITY held when that movie opened. Unlike that night, Miller wasn’t present, which was a shame—I’m sure many of his comics comrades would have liked a chance to salute him in person. After SIN CITY, everyone was numbed but impressed; after 300, the reaction was generally “I loved it!” (Apparently, Miller had sent a statement to be read before the screening, but it wasn’t read because someone wanted the screening to begin on time. If true, that’s a real shame.)
And of course, if it gets the kind of box office success and popular acclaim many observers are expecting, it will be another triumph for the comic book movie. Miller’s RONIN is already underway. The works of Miller, Moore and Gaiman, the troika of comics culture ascendency, have been or will be pretty well appropriated by Hollywood. It’s hard to think of too many other artists whose translated work could be so ferociously cinematic as Miller — although at dinner afterwards with a bunch of cartooners, the idea of a Jack Kirby movie was floated with glee. (I doubt Tim Story is making that movie, alas.) At any rate, the HSX value of comics IP should move up a tetch. As everyone schmoozed in the lobby after the movie, almost everyone had some Hollywood connection, from John Cassaday mentioning doing costume designs for the WATCHMEN movie (Snyder strikes again) to Jimmy Palmiotti talking about promotions for the PAINKILLER JANE TV show. As long as they still do some comics, we should be okay.
DVD EXTRA: •See Colleen Doran explain 300’s yaoi-spin-off potential here.
• Also, follow along with the critics at Rotten Tomatoes. So far, regular tracking is 61% but elite reviews are thumbs down. I suspect it won’t matter a bit. This movie is for the action-junkie in all of us.
•If you are the kind of person who likes to notice background business, take note of how often the extras seems to be standing around awkwardly in great embarrassment at wearing nothing but leather codpieces.
*I stole this analogy from someone at dinner…and honestly don’t remember who, but thank you whoever you are.