Taking one of the most famous battles in history and turning it into a visually arresting music video, "300" will no doubt replace "Fight Club" on the top of every alpha male's wet dream list of great films. If only it had the smarts or quality of that Fincher film because as is, only teenagers would dare mention it in such company.
That's not to dismiss "300" either, far from it. Inspired by "Sin City" author Frank Miller's imaginative graphic novel, the story wildly reinterprets the Battle of Thermopylae into a highly stylized comic book version of events. The film adaptation utilizes the same all green-screen technology and digitally manipulated look which the "Sin City" film used but takes it a step further with more elaborate techniques all around (yes, even color), and applies it to the historical action epic genre.
For those not up on their history, King Leonidas was the ruler of Greek state Sparta. Along with 300 of his elite warriors (Sparta was a city state devoted to military training), he held off what was said to be a million man army of invading Persians for several days using the advantage of landscape and their training - giving the divided Greek nation enough time to unite and amass their forces to repel the invaders.
The sheer strength of "300" lies in its visual landscape and Snyder's at times inspired directorial choices. Much of the shots resemble artwork far more than moving picture. Somewhat awkwardly green-screened at times, the effects aren't ground breaking, and frequently unrealistic, but they are prevalent throughout and certainly imaginative. When utilizing scenes from the comic though, they become almost a grim masterpiece in a way - from silhouettes in the mist, to rain and wind lashing the assorted warriors on a cliff top, some scenes are truly breath-taking in their artistry.
The action is also quite strong and rip-roaring as well. The use of a speed up & slow down time trick at various points is annoying but thankfully never overwhelming. Snyder has a great eye for action visuals with use of many long and wide shots, a moderate amount of medium shots and only when needed, close-ups. He frames it all very well so that we're never really confused about who is fighting, despite the various soldiers wearing very similar armor.
Thanks to the heightened reality of the comic origins, the action is also broken up into a variety of over the top but memorable scenarios including swarms of arrows darkening the sky, rhinos, elephants, silver-masked elite warriors, spear throwing, impaling, sword fighting and more. Yes it is violent, at times a little too over the top on that front, but it's nowhere near as sadistic or self-indulgent in that way as the over-rated and far more twisted "Sin City" was. In 'Sin' the violence was the crux of the story, here it just feels like a natural part.
Sadly however, despite all the visual trickery and slick filmmaking, the film still can't really hide the fact that underneath is a vehicle essentially as clunky, empty and vacuous as your average mediocre comic adaptation - something along the lines of a "Daredevil" or "Fantastic Four". It follows Miller's work closely, and in doing so incorporates the trademark problems which make him beloved by some, and dismissed by others (I'll admit up front that I'm much more of an Alan Moore fan myself).
A macho straight male in the strongest sense of the word, Miller's tales are often hailed as revolutionary and admittedly contain not only some great high-concept scenarios but imaginative ideas that skewer things generally set in stone. Yet it also often reflects that bullheaded approach with a right-leaning pro-fascism political agenda that dangerously categorizes things, hokey dialogue, lack of narrative, and testosterone-fueled posturing frequently bordering on the sexist and pushing well into the racist and homophobic.
Many of these problems apply exactly to "300". David Wenham's nasal voice over is often as cringe-inducing as the entire cast's repetitive mantras throughout which resemble more the Nike philosophy of single sentence cliches than the wise metaphors of the ancient Greeks. The words are just as badly overcooked as "Sin City", but thankfully get distracted by the bigger emphasis on action rather than conversation. During the battles it is not an issue, but when the film slows down for conversations it becomes quite noticeable and irritating.
Gerard Butler and Lena Headey bring the film's two notable performances, the later easily being the film's only really developed character. Their scenes together in the first half hour are the strongest moments of the film character wise, but the slowest part of the film pacing wise. After the 300 go to fight, poor Headey is stuck wandering a courtyard talking to one man and getting raped by another before making a bold stand at the end. Yet those cutbacks to her in Sparta, despite trying to flesh out her character, only serve to slow down the film and point out how on the dramatic front this is far more along the lines of a "Troy" than a "Rome," "Gladiator" or "I, Claudius" caliber drama.
Wenham has proven himself a solid actor in the past, but short of a few scant lines he's stuck behind a microphone much of the time. The rest of the warriors leave little impression, as do the assorted politicians back home like Dominic West as an almost moustache-twirling rival who likes a bit of penetration against a pillar. Far more memorable are the bodies on display. I wouldn't be surprised if one could count 1800 abs on display as no film in recent memory has celebrated the torso as much as this one. Yet far from being homoerotic, the film whilst not anti-gay directly certainly implies it.
This is very confusing as the Spartans, one of the most famous societies in history for worshipping the male form in more ways than one, are represented here as chaste heterosexual guys in leather thongs no less, except the king who indulges in some basic rumpy pumpy with his wife (they manage five of the forty-two most common positions, sadly no 'reverse cowgirl'). The Persians on the other hand have a king dressed like a high class BDSM prostitute and parties brimming over with frequent lesbian, mutant and lesbian mutant sex.
That's just one of a number of curious stylistic choices here. The Persian make-up for example makes the actors look like they have been playing Klingons in the 60's "Star Trek" series - right down to the dark grease skin foundation, wiry black beards, bad teeth and propensity to shout grandiose claims. The Persian elite squad 'The Immortals' seem to be brothers to Klytus from "Flash Gordon" on the outside and Gary Oldman's Dracula on the inside. Xerxes himself, an unrecognizable Rodrigo Santoro, seems to be a third-rate "Stargate" villain, complete with God complex, leg extensions and speaking through a voice synthesizer.
Then of course there's the political angle which is bound to make headlines. Miller's work has often had a pro-war agenda, celebrating that rigid philosophy that makes simple-minded decisions about complex scenarios, and believing violence is a means to all ends. Combine that with a tale about the Spartans, an elitist militarized culture born and bred to be the most efficient soldiers in battle, and you've got something so right-leaning it's almost topical.
Pushing it that extra mile of course is that much of the Persian empire has now evolved into Iran - at the time of Miller's penning that mattered little, but in the post-Iraq time of the film's release it's a little awkward. One element of narrative, that Leonidas goes to war despite it not being legal or popular, draws parallels to the acts of George W. Bush's administration in Iraq (albeit without the invading hordes). As it wasn't in the comic however, this seems a deliberate and unnecessary choice on the filmmakers part to stir up controversy. Then again considering the situation of the story - a small belief-driven insurgent force fighting off unwelcome & better armed superior force - maybe it's hinting that Bush is the one in the gold lamé speedos.
People turned off by ancient history films due to their excessive length and preaching may warm to this much more stylized and faster paced approach - even if it does sacrifice the genre's strengths in favor of cheap thrills, nice visuals and a mildly disturbing agenda - not to mention any real sense of character or story. Funnily enough of all the film's I can think of that this resembles, the most comparable would be the original "Conan the Barbarian". A touch of fantasy, but a gritty and real warrior code story with a slightly misogynist tone and mild political agenda. If you liked Arnie in his hey day, you'll definitely love this.