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300: Good and Evil collide in Zack Snyder’s Spartan Epic

Tae Andrews and Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Tae: At its heart, “300” is a comic-book fan’s movie: a bunch of nearly naked men running around in capes and poking at monsters with their spears. Aiming, maiming and inflicting pain, King Leonidas and his merry men vanquish enemies and spill blood by the bucketload, all the while screaming for guts and glory at the top of their lungs. For all the squishing and squelching sounds of blood being shed in battle, more testosterone than plasma gets sprayed around in this he-man epic.

Unfortunately, while “300” is huge on razzle-dazzle, flash and flare, it falls short on substance. Unlike the beefcake Spartans, there’s not a whole lot of meat on these cinematic bones. Visually, “300” is a spectacle, although the film lacks emotional resonance. As the body count nears the triple century mark, the audience is more likely to be dropping jaws at the stylized gore than shedding tears for the fallen heroes.

Even so, “300” delivers on what it does best – action, action and more action. The film’s combat scenes are way cool – “300” is filled with tons of sweet slow-motion shots, in addition to a stop-and-go pacing technique which showcases every hack, thrust and parry in exquisite detail. The film’s cinematography is more than enough to let the audience appreciate all of its battlefield butchery as Leonidas and Co. try to stonewall the Persian advance in the bottleneck of the Hot Gates.

More than “Rudy,” more than “Little Giants,” “300” is the ultimate underdog tale – a paltry three hundred soldiers versus an army of Persians numbering in the bajillions. It’s an easy tale of good versus evil – the good guys are buff dudes with spears, and the bad guys are ninjas, monsters, elephants, rhinos and magicians wielding grenades (oh my!)

To their credit, the ensemble cast of “300” is seriously jacked. In the words of pop star Fergie, you could probably catch the Spartans “up in the gym, just working on their fitness” in their free time, although with all the rippling abs on display, apparently the Spartans spend as much time on Pilates as they do on the bench press. Much like our own armed forces, the Spartan military must have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, as a sense of vague homoeroticism pervades the entire film.

It should be mentioned that amid all the silliness, actor Gerard Butler manages to distinguish himself from a mostly mediocre cast. Butler cuts an imposing figure as King Leonidas and brings regal gravitas to the role. Perhaps more impressively, he manages to not look completely absurd despite strutting around in little more than a shield, spear and leather Speedo for the whole film.

If the film feels like it’s straight out of a comic book, that’s because it is. Much like director Robert Rodriguez did on “Sin City” (another film based off of a Frank Miller book) “300” writer/director Zack Snyder does an excellent job of translating the panels of the graphic novel to the frames of the film, to the point where some of Miller’s visuals literally leap to life on the silver screen. Unfortunately, Snyder strays from the original material with an unnecessary and extraneous subplot that detracts from the concise nature of the original story. In doing so, Snyder puts a modern twist on “300,” likening it to the current war on terror in the Middle East. At one point, King Leonidas’ wife Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) even drops the horrendous line, “Freedom isn’t free,” which makes the whole affair come across as a parable for the war on terror. This makes the film feel like a parody of itself and shreds any of its remaining credibility.

However, even though it has a run time of more than two hours, the film doesn’t feel bogged down – an impressive feat considering that the graphic novel it’s based on is only 88 pages long.

Despite its silliness, simplicity and other shortcomings, “300” can and should still be appreciated for what it is – bloody good fun.

Rama: The first thing we notice about the world of “300” is how golden it looks. Apart from an occasional dip into the inky blacks of nightfall, this story is told under the hot auburn skies of Sparta, which begs the following question: was Ancient Greece ever this vibrant, this perfect?

The answer, of course, is no. Still, it’s hard to fault director Zack Snyder and his cadre of digital effects wizards for wanting to pretty up the landscape of their epic fable. It’s just one stylistic choice among many in a gorgeously crafted film that astounds the senses, if not the brain.

“300” is not a thinking man’s movie and never pretends to be. It’s a simple tale, one that never strays far from its three central themes – duty, honor and vengeance. We’ve seen these themes splashed in red across the battlefields of “Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Troy” – but never quite like this.

Narrated by Dilios (David Wenham), a Spartan soldier with the all-too-rare gift of oration, the story begins with the origin of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler). As a boy, young Leonidas, whose training includes being literally thrown to the wolves, is bloodied, bruised and beaten. It’s a trial by fire that takes away fear and weakness, replacing it with a focused rage. Bloodshed is a Spartan’s birthright, and his life’s purpose.

So when foreign emissaries come to Sparta’s gates demanding submission to the Persian king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), Butler’s Leonidas is predictably enraged. In one of the movie’s many memorable one-liners, he enunciates his next words with a menacing, guttural snarl. “This. Is. Spar. Ta!” he bellows before slaughtering the Persian messengers. Wasting no time, he then rallies 300 of his fiercest soldiers for war.

Inspired by Frank Miller’s 1998 graphic novel, “300” follows in the pulpy footsteps of “Sin City,” another Miller creation. Spearheaded by Robert Rodriguez, the 2005 picture set the new standard for movies adapted from comic books. Each of Miller’s comic book panels was painstakingly transmuted into ceaselessly stylish cinema.

Much of the “Sin City” charm came from its rich cast of characters and their dark, gruff sense of humor. “300” is a different beast entirely. Even if Snyder had stripped away all the angry speeches and blood-curdling war cries, not much would change. We’d still marvel at the movie’s boundless energy and its striking visuals, which rivals most impressionistic paintings.

Awash with bold colors, “300” is a movie made to be absorbed, not questioned – and Snyder keeps us nicely occupied with his visual panache. One battle sequence in particular is stunningly crafted. Snyder tracks the camera and follows Leonidas as he cuts a swath through a gang of Persian soldiers. In a masterful, balletic sequence, the action fluidly ramps from normal speed to slow-motion, zooming in to reveal each one of the Spartan king’s precise killing strokes.

Is style enough to make a movie? Not necessarily. “300” suffers from quite a few patches of sloppy storytelling. Consider, for example, the scene where a Spartan traitor is exposed. With King Leonidas gone, he holds all the political power. But he’s undone because he carries around a bag of gold coins, (in)conveniently stamped with the seal of Xerxes. Fortunately, we aren’t left much time to puzzle over this inane plot point. Snyder quickly shuffles us back to Leonidas and his soldiers, and their bloodletting continues.

Watching “300,” I was reminded of “Gladiator.” Early in that film, Russell Crowe drops his head and kneels in front of a Roman executor, prepared for his death. It’s all a clever ploy, and it works because of his sly sincerity.

“At least give me a clean death,” Crowe’s Maximus asks.

“A soldier’s death.”

After spending two hours with them, we get the feeling that Sparta’s proud 300 are all chasing a morbid dream.

Dilios lets us in on their secret.

“We Spartans are descended from Hercules himself,” he says proudly of his countrymen. “Taught that death on the battlefield is the greatest glory he could achieve in his life.”

From the very beginning, Snyder seems to have realized a crucial fact. Like Maximus, these 300 men would never be content to quietly die on their knees.

A clean death would only sully their proud lineage. Instead, Synder gives them what they want, and he doesn’t worry about much else, including the film’s simple plot.

Snyder meticulously lines up hordes of Persian enemies for the better part of two hours, leaving Leonidas and his men to merrily stab, dismember and slash away in their bloody sandbox – all the way to their gloriously messy deaths.