When, in "300," Zack Snyder‘s disastrous tribute to ancient badassery, warriors bawl "This! Is! Spartaaaa!," it’s impossible not to wonder: is this actually meant to be…Americaaaa? "300" is, after all, the tale of how a limited but uberheroic force heads off to fight the unwashed hordes from the Middle East after speechifying about freedom and patriotism, the admonitions of the foolish politicians on the Spartan council be damned. As a political metaphor, it doesn’t line up into anything worth analysis. As the extreme conclusion of every fanboy obsession with hypermasculinity and glorified slow-motion violence, it’s a keeper.
"300" is a film adaptation of Frank Miller‘s graphic novel of the
same name, which is a loose account of the Battle of Thermopylae. At the film’s outset, the massive armies of the Persian Emperor Xerxes are poised to crush the city-state of Sparta; the stakes of this encroachment are never made entirely clear, as King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, who may have the worst agent in the world) not only refuses to negotiate with the Persian messenger who arrives to inform him of this fact, but kicks him into the deep pit the Spartans have apparently constructed in the midst of the city for this very purpose. There’s much about the film’s celebration of Spartan culture that might give one pause, particularly the description of it as the world’s one hope for reason and justice immediately after we’ve been treated to a prologue about how the Spartans throw their runty babies off a cliff and subject their adolescent boys to a routine of beatings and battles with wild animal to toughen them up. Reason and justice must be pastimes left to those other Greeks, like the rival Athenians, who Leonidas sneeringly refers to as "boy lovers." No such homoerotic context for the Spartans, the manliest men to ever wage war in leather speedos.
The corrupt oracular ministry is bribed into refusing to allow the city-state to officially go to war, so Leonidas, after a little nookie from his sharp-tongued wife Gorgo (Lena Headey), gathers 300 of his burliest soldiers and sets up at a pass where the size of the Persian Army will be negated by the narrowness of the space. From there, the film is one lingering skirmish after another with the themed forces of Asia, who arrive packing sky-blackening sheets of arrows, masks, elephants, grenades and an armored rhino.
"300" does look remarkable, like a Frank Frazetta painting brought to life. The film was, like the last adaptation of a Miller graphic novel, Robert Rodriguez‘s "Sin City," shot against bluescreens, the rich backgrounds filled in during post-production. While "Sin City"’s ultrastylized recreations reinforced the sense that the actors were overlaid into their environment rather than interacting with it directly, most reminders of that separation are gone in "300"; the burnished actors look as real or unreal as their settings. Many of Snyder’s shots were apparently inspired by panels in Miller’s book â€” these best inform the film in moments like a silhouetted conflict at the top of a cliff, or a sequence in which Leonidas slices his way through a wave of Persian soldiers, the camera scrolling with him like eyes across a page. Snyder’s fatal addiction to slow-motion undermines many of the other action sequences; scarcely a shot can go by without time going elastic for a few luxurious seconds so that we can better appreciate someone’s head being cut off, or some new horde’s yawping approach over a bluff. It’s the visual equivalent of a letter composed entirely in italics, or, given the director’s faith that no smidgen of dialogue is too marginal not to be bellowed, in capital letters.
There are too many jaw-dropping throwaway images in "300" to recount â€” the man with blade-arms; the Boschian tree of dead bodies; the lesbian amputee harem display; Xerxes himself, who arrives on an immense portable dais looking like a pierced seven-foot Oscar statue. Its audaciousness pushes the film well into that valuable realm of the good-bad; it’s ridiculous, it utterly fails to be the rousing portrait of sacrifice and glory in death it would like to be, and we’d see it again in a second.
"300" opens in wide release March 9th.
+ "300" (Warner Bros.)