Misplaced Martyrdom

Dir. Zack Snyder; writ. Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller; feat. Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Rodrigo Santoro (R)
In Premiere magazine, director Zack Snyder said that he hopes his film 300, a flashy retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, will set the standard for sword-and-sandle epics to come. Time will tell. What seems certain is that, whether it sets new trends or not, 300 will, in three decades, be excellent fodder for cult-movie hounds looking for a campy night out (in the same way that we today look at Technicolor vistas and fake-tastic backdrops and can’t believe our parents or grandparents ever took all that goofy pomposity seriously).

To be sure, the movie looks pretty amazing right here and now. Created out of thin air and microchips, it uses CGI to achieve painterly control over ancient horizons and impossibly huge armies. The compositions are often gorgeous, although the ways they’re brought to life are sometimes dubious: When a lone, spear-wielding warrior goes on a fast-slow, fast-slow rampage through enemy ranks, or when a series of over-sober cutaway shots amp-up the drama of an already Leone-level standoff, one envisions a direction that perfume-ad auteur Ridley Scott might have gone had he not found success with less-stylized drama. Making ads for three-ton pickup trucks, say.

The style-over-substance factor isn’t necessarily fatal here, but it’s a threat. Working against it are some cast members, particularly Gerard Butler, whose calm ferocity as King Leonidas nearly erases the Phantom of the Opera blot from his résumé.

Leonidas is a king in ancient Sparta who, when he hears of evil on the march, breaks the law of his land — and goes against the wishes of an effete legislative council — to lead a too-small band of soldiers against a sprawling enemy. People talking about the film before its release have suggested we should read a parallel to current events into this set-up. But for that to make sense, we’d have to be able to imagine our own warlord monarch leading troops into battle instead of giving the marching orders and swooping in afterward for a photo op. I don’t think I can conjure that image, even with the help of CGI.

Spartan warriors, famously, were bred to be fearless fighting machines, and the film’s key attraction (outside of Frank Miller fanboy appeal) is seeing these 300 fearless men go up against innumerable and inscrutable enemies. In terms of action and spectacle, the director Snyder gets his rocks off pretty successfully — and even finds time to appeal to the Abercrombie & Fitch demographic by clothing these hunka-hunka dudes in next to  nothing and charcoaling up their abs for maximum definition. (As if fighting mutants and giant elephants wasn’t enough, our heroes have to march all day with their torsos at maximum clench.)

But when we cut from the action to the home front to whip up some drama with a Queen struggling to convince her council to send more troops, we have to ask: What kind of wonderland society, again, are they trying to defend? The one we heard about at the movie’s start, where any baby born with an imperfect physique is tossed off a cliff to be eaten by vultures, the better to ensure an army of perfect manly-men?

Oh, yeah.

How about we just let that little city-state perish, then water down the gene pool a bit so future wars are a little less efficient? 


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