Saturday, March 3, 2012

Film Review | 300 (2007)

Greek Rush

by Thomas Delapa

If you're talking tough love, nothing beats the wives of ancient Sparta. When Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) sends her husband Leonidas (Gerard Butler) off to fight the Persians, her adieu is short and not-so-sweet: "Come back with your shield—or on it."

Pumped up with fab abs and a legion of computer effects, 300 takes no prisoners in its visceral and feverishly visual retelling of the legendary battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Armed with every high-tech weapon in today's filmmaking, director Zack Snyder has kicked your father's sword-and-sandal movie back to the Stone Age.

Based on the graphic novel by Sin City author Frank Miller, 300 far outnumbers anything in theaters right now for cinematic and sinewy audacity. On the other hand, it's heavy in collateral damage. If you had to pick one movie that would bring a round of salutes from Hitler, Mussolini and Alexander the Great, this is it.

Temporarily sidestepping the film's racist and xenophobic streak, this may be the best adaptation of a graphic novel to date. Snyder (2005's Dawn of the Dead) and company keep Miller's neo-mythological tone and look intact, winging us to an ancient Greece that floats between reality and imagination. It's an Olympian feat, but it's also afflicted with an Achilles heel of Western jingoism.

Acting as sentinel for the European Aryan nation is Sparta, a city-state of 24/7 warriors led by the brave and bellicose King Leonidas. Only 300 Spartan warriors stand in the way of Persia's Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his hordes. A bald and semi-androgynous giant of a tyrant, Xerxes is a scary guy, beginning with a face full of piercings that would make even Hellraiser's Pinhead say ouch.

In this tale of arms and the man, poet-soldier Dilios (David Wenham) joins up to add an epic narration, resounding with mythical embellishment that hearkens back to the great storytelling traditions of Virgil and Homer. On the Spartan home front, waffling politicians debate whether they should send reinforcements to back up Leonidas' band of brothers. The king's feisty wife fights her own battles, firstly with the sleazy and treacherous leader of the council.

Grecian history formula aside, 300 gangs up to sound a clarion call to protect the Indo-European frontier in whatever continent. The barbarians are at the gates, and they've brought their "tyranny and mysticism" along with elephants. It's an army conscripted with slaves, giants, deformed freaks, harem harlots and veiled, bomb-throwing cowards. In 480 B.C., Persia (read: Iran) was still pre-Islamic, but there's nothing like a pre-emptive Armageddon to get the blood running.

And what a lovely war it is. On Snyder's sepia-toned killing fields, wave after wave of Persian minions run headlong into Leonidas' handful of gallant men, who grant no mercy and expect none. Boldly choreographed with slo-mo flourishes, it's a bloody good show—accent on the blood. But in Miller's gory holy war, there are no winners and few survivors. "I have filled my heart with hate," says the Captain (Vincent Regan) after his son is killed in one skirmish. To which Leondias smiles and replies, "Good."

By Zeus, where do I sign up for the Crusades?


Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 3/15/07

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