by Steve Habrat
Just six short months after dominating the summer with Iron Man 3 and three short months after announcing details for their Avengers follow-up, Marvel is back with a sequel to Kenneth Branagh’s intergalactic epic Thor. Branagh’s iridescent 2011 effort really took me by surprise, mostly because I was convinced that the Norse god wouldn’t translate well to film. It didn’t help that the trailer failed to really sell the swords and hammer mayhem. Despite my apprehension, Thor turned out to be one hell of a thrill ride even though it was distractingly acting as a partial tease for The Avengers. With the first Avengers film out of their system, Marvel can now focus on giving their Avengers cast movies that are free of that crossover blockbuster’s chains. Here we have Thor: The Dark World, a sequel that doesn’t feel like it’s rushing to develop this character just so we know who the heck the beefcake with the hammer is in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. With Thor: The Dark World, we are given more time on Thor’s home planet, Asgard, and we are treated to more strange creatures looking to rip the universe to shreds. While the second half is undeniably entertaining with its billowing high-stakes showdowns, the opening stretch seems like a lazy reworking of what we saw in the previous Thor film. To make things worse, star Natalie Portman seems like she was forced at gunpoint to reprise her role as Jane Foster. Is this the same woman who won on Oscar for Black Swan?
Thor: The Dark World begins by explaining that many years ago, Thor’s grandfather had a battle with the Dark Elf leader Malekith (played by Christopher Eccleston), who was planning on using a matter called Aether to destroy the Nine Realms. The Asgardians won the battle and managed to secure the Aether from Malekith, but the Asgardians were unable to destroy the weapon, so they buried where no one would find it. Angry over his defeat, Malekity fled into space with a group of followers to regroup. In present day, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) and his Asgardian followers attempt to bring order to worn torn planets across the universe while Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) faces his sentencing for what he did to New York City. On Earth, astrophysicist Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) has been waiting two years for Thor to return to her. Just as she is attempting to move on with her life, intern Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings) tracks her down to show her an abandoned building that appears to have multiple portals into other worlds. After Jane stumbles through one of these portals, she discovers the hidden Aether, which latches itself onto her and begins flowing through her veins. The disrupting of the Aether awakens Malekith, who has been drifting in space with his soldiers waiting for the smallest sign of the Aether’s whereabouts. Fearing for Jane’s life, Thor returns to Earth to take her back to Asgard where he can protect her, but Malekith is isn’t far behind and he is hellbent on bringing darkness to the galaxy.
Director Alan Taylor opens Thor: The Dark World with a pair of rousing space battles that allow the viewer a glimpse into the expansive Marvel universe beyond the stars. There are all sorts of grotesque creatures that will make your eyes pop, but it’s the story foundation that is built under this action that seems all too familiar. In place of the glowing blue Tesseract is the Aether, a flowing red matter that swims through the air and resembles Kool-Aid. Rather than an unlimited energy source, the Aether plunges everything into darkness and it is naturally sought after by the baddies so that they can destroy the whole universe. Then there is Darcy, Jane, and Stellan Skarsgard’s Dr. Erik Selvig, who all dart around with flickering devices that detect portals and other alien anomalies while everyone else thinks they’ve got screws loose. The only thing missing are the SHEILD agents prowling around! This middling commencement is spruced up with some geeky humor and a cutesy cameo from Bridesmaids star Chris O’Dowd. Thankfully, when war comes to Asgard, the battle gets a bit more personal for Thor and Loki, both who loose someone very close to them. This is precisely where the glimmers of familiarity start to get buried beneath some sprawling clashes that are capable of bringing down the theater walls. They’re also fairly impressive in 3D, a format that Marvel has been shockingly lazy about considering all the money they are dumping into each one of these films.
As far as the action scenes are concerned, they single handedly make up for the film’s shortcomings. It never gets old watching Thor leap into the air with his hammer raised, bringing it down on the ground to knock about ten bad guys charging him off their feet. There is a hilarious confrontation between Thor and a snarling rock monster that gets tamed with one swing of Thor’s mighty mallet. The opening battle between masked Dark Elves and Viking-like Asgardians is a buzzy cocktail of Star Wars-esque laser battles and Lord of the Rings swordplay. The standout action set piece is easily the battle on Asgard, in which Malekith’s forces rocket at the gold city in sleek jets that cut right into the gold heart of the towering palace that Thor and his family call home. It helps that these scenes have dropped Branagh’s spit-polished approach, allowing them to feel rough around the edges and, dare I say, legitimately dangerous. Then there is the big finish, which features Thor and Malekith duking it out as they tumble through multiple portals that send them careening through the universe. The constantly shifting backdrops are a blast and Taylor weaves the action through them seamlessly, but what grows frustrating is the fact that Jane and her buddies can dart through all the destruction unscathed. They are several of Malekith’s soldiers hot on their heels, but they just never seem to be able to catch up or hit them with a laser blast. Oh, come on!
Then we have our performers, who for the most part slip comfortably back into the skins of their characters—well, expect for Portman. Hemsworth is still lovable as the gruff God of Thunder, who relishes a good fight but sulks over Jane during the post-battle celebration. I especially enjoyed his increasingly complex relationship with Hiddleston’s Loki, who is as devious as ever. When the lightheartedness is dropped and the two confront each other over the events in New York, the drama cuts like a knife and leaves a sting that is difficult to shake. Eccleston’s Malekith booms with plenty of promises of death and destruction, and it helps that the look of his character just screams evil. Malekith has been downplayed in the trailers, which is nice because it shrouds his character in malevolent mystery. Then we have Portman, who acts as through the material here is beneath her. She fluffs off guys who wish to pursue a relationship with her and she pouts over Thor’s absence like a spoiled child. There is none of the starry-eyed swooning going on here, only huffy obligation and line delivery that seems like she is reading from a script buried in her lap. Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin, Thor’s one-eyed papa who promises to defeat Malekith and his advancing forces. Rene Russo proves to be one tough mama as Frigga, Thor’s mother who gets a chance to engage Malekith in a sword fight. There is also the always-welcome Idris Elba as Heimdall, the gatekeeper of the Bifrost who brings down one of Malekith’s ships with his bare hands. Talk about a major badass!
One of the biggest disappointments of Thor: The Dark World is the fact that the film never adopts the darker tone that was hinted at in the trailer. There are some heavier moments and a few death scenes that will hush the children pacing the aisles with excitement, but it almost always seems obligated to deliver a joke. Mind you, the humor works, but I think it would be nice to see Marvel allow these films to venture into some bleaker territory. This exact problem plagued Iron Man 3, which initially hinted that Phase 2 of the cinematic Marvel universe was going to opt for the shadowy path where our heroes were going to be dealt personal blows from the villians. On the flip side, it is understandable considering that Disney now has a presence and they are desperate to draw in young kids who may be turned off by the darker material. Overall, while the first act is a bit clunky, Thor: The Dark World is bursting with rollicking cosmic thrills in the second and third acts. It may not be Marvel’s finest achievement, but it makes for some solid entertainment that ends with a cliffhanger guaranteed to leave you wanting more. More importantly, it feels like a bonafide standalone story in the series, something that was plaguing the pre-Avengers efforts. As always, make sure to stick around through the credits for some more surprises.
by Steve Habrat
About three years ago, director Robert Schwentke’s geriatric action-comedy RED became a respectable success. It raked in a nice chunk of change, it seemed to charm anyone who went to the theater to see it, and it even went on to earn a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Picture-Musical or Comedy category. While I found RED to be a fairly entertaining comic book outing, it really didn’t win me over like it did with almost everyone else who ventured to the theater to check out Helen Mirren with a machine gun. The absolute last thing that I thought it needed was a sequel, but apparently Hollywood thought differently. Enter RED 2, an action comedy that practically throws its back out to capture the same small, off-beat charms of the first film in a summer blockbuster season crammed with giant robots, monsters, and other, better superheroes. While new director Dean Parisot may have had his heart in the right place, RED 2 is a sluggish and stale shoot-‘em-up that feels obligated to incorporate every action movie cliché imaginable. The returning cast members sure seem spirited and the newcomers are relishing the idea of spending time with Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich, but after a while, all of them start to seem bored, confused, and, much to my horror, a bit winded. Come on, guys, pick it up!
Former black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses (played by Bruce Willis) is trying to live a normal life with his feisty girlfriend, Sarah Ross (played by Mary-Louise Parker). One day while shopping at Costco, Frank and Sarah bump into paranoid buddy Marvin Boggs (played by John Malkovich), who warns Frank that there are people after them. Frank dismisses Marvin, and moments later, Marvin’s car is blown up. Sarah and Frank attend Marvin’s funeral, even though Frank is convinced that Marvin is not dead, and afterward, Frank is taken to the Yankee White Facility to be interrogated. While in custody, the Yankee White Facility is attacked by Jack Horton (played by Neal McDonough), who is there to find Frank, but right before Frank is going to be killed, Marvin, who turns out to be alive, saves the day. Frank and Sarah go on the run with Marvin, who explains that they were listed as participants in a secret Cold War mission called “Nightshade,” which revolved around sneaking a nuclear weapon into the Kremlin piece by piece. As it turns out, that mysterious weapon is now in high demand. Just when the trio believes that things can’t get any worse, they learn that their old friend Victoria Winters (played by Helen Mirren) and top contract killer Han Jo-bae (played by Lee Byung-hun) have been hired to kill them. As Frank, Sarah, and Marvin travel the world to clear their names, they come face to face with the beautiful Russian secret agent Katya (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), a deadly assassin called “The Frog” (played by David Thewlis), and the crazy Dr. Edward Bailey (played by Anthony Hopkins), the man responsible for the creation of the weapon.
After getting off to a cloudy start, RED 2 quickly morphs into another seen-it-all-before action comedy. While RED was more humorous than it was flat-out funny, RED 2 can’t seem to deliver a good laugh to save its life. The only one who doesn’t fumble through her one-liners is Mirren, who really knows how to make even the most wooden joke cut like a knife. It is one thing that the jokes come off as lazy, but it’s another when the action can’t seem to ever get your adrenaline pumping. There are the expected car chases through narrow Paris streets, there are the fistfights that are meant to show us that Bruce Willis can still throw a mean right hook, and there are the Gatling-gun shootouts that turn cars and buildings into Swiss cheese, but all of these would-be rushes seem like they were executed by using a how-to manual for action films. The only time that Parisot really adds any personality to all the compact destruction is near the end, when Byung-hun and Mirren hop into a ice blue sports car and swerve around whizzing bullets like they belong in The Fast and the Furious. The entire sequence is anchored by Mirren’s ability to barely raise an eyebrow as cars go flipping end over end behind them. This is basically where the fun begins and ends in RED 2.
The true strength of RED lied with its all-star cast of energetic veterans who really made the film something worth talking about. While the cast of RED 2 is clearly having a good time with each other, their performances are a mixed bag. As far as the returning cast members go, Willis is the one headlining the mayhem and he looks to be right at home while doing it. He jumps, shoots, kicks, punches, and bleeds like a champion, but as the story progresses, he almost seems to be loosing interest in saving the world for the hundredth time. As Marvin, Malkovich dials back some of his acid-flashback craziness, which is a shame because his character relied on the idea that he had more than a few screws loose. Parker is clearly enjoying the fact that she is surrounded by a handful of legends, but she probably gives the laziest performance in the entire film. She basically just constantly gets mad at Frank for having dated Katya several years earlier. Mirren probably gives the best performance of the film as Victoria, who doesn’t remotely seem phased by anything going on around her. As far as the newcomers are concerned, Jones is here to give the film a bit more sex appeal. She is vampy and fun, but we are barely given the chance to get to know her character. Byung-hun turns up as the usual unstoppable hitman who can, you guessed it, kill someone with almost ANYTHING. It appears that Malkovich handed all of his crazy pills over to Hopkins, who jolly-goods his way through a crackers performance as Dr. Edward Bailey. Rounding out the cast is Neal McDonough as Jack Horton, the most boring bad guy ever. Seriously, he even has a boring name!
While the original RED had quite a few positives working in its favor, the film found success mostly because it was released during a slow month at the box office. The film came out at the end of October, with absolutely no competition whatsoever. RED 2 has been released in the middle of July, on a weekend that is usually reserved for a major studio release that is sure to make close to $100 million. It is surrounded by epic releases that almost dwarf it and make it seem like a wimpy effort. While it could be argued that RED 2 offers a nice change of pace from the usual superhero movies and alien invasion blockbusters, the film is still trying to be an action movie without bringing anything new to the table, which is really a shame. Overall, RED 2 isn’t a particularly awful film, but it is one made with absolutely no artistic vision. The tone is flat, the plot is dull, the action recycled, and the acting all over the place. Maybe if the studio shot for a release date earlier in the year or later this fall, these issues may not have been as noticeable. If there is a RED 3 in the works, which I’m sure that there is, maybe they should start rethinking it or hire a director willing to shake things up a bit.
by Steve Habrat
Ever since Dredd 3D premiered at the July San Diego Comic Con, surprisingly positive word of mouth has been spreading through the internet faster than SLO-MO inhalers across Mega-City One, something that is very shocking because action films released in September tend to be pretty lousy. Infinitely better than it has any right to be, Dredd 3D is a lean and mean superhero exercise that is both thoughtfully constructed by its director, Peter Travis, and also a thoughtful experience on the viewers part, something this comic book fan certainly didn’t expect. Travis seems to understand that many may not be so welcoming of Judge Dredd, especially after what Sylvester Stallone did to the character back in 1995. Well, you can all breathe a sigh of relief because there is no Rob Schneider here. While Dredd 3D didn’t blow me away like I hoped it would, I still found the film to be a relentlessly entertaining thrill ride that packs some unique action sequences, dazzling slow-motion shots that look fantastic in 3D, and a gritty aesthetic that resembles both 28 Days Later and District 9. And then there is Karl Urban as the man himself, Judge Dredd, a closed-book badass who is insanely likable even if we never do get to see his face or learn much of anything about him. I should also add that he certainly has a way with one-liners.
Set in the grimy future, America is now an irradiated wasteland known as the Cursed Earth. On the east coast, there exists a massive walled city known as Mega-City One, a violent metropolis that is ravaged by crime and an addictive new drug called SLO-MO, which slows the users perception of reality to 1% its normal speed. The only order in the chaos are Judges of the Hall of Justice, urban cops who posses the authority to act as judge, jury, and executioner. The nastiest and toughest of all the Judges is Dredd (Played by Karl Urban), who is asked by the Chief Judge (Played by Rakie Ayola) to train rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson (Played by Olivia Thirlby). While Anderson failed her examination by three points, she was still allowed to join the force due to her powerful psychic abilities that are a result of genetic mutation. Dredd reluctantly agrees to take the rookie under his wing and the two respond to an atrocious murder in a massive housing block called Peach Trees, a place where Judges rarely go. While investigating the murders, Dredd and Anderson discover that the massive slum is controlled by sadistic drug lord Ma-Ma (Played by Lena Headey) and her clan of killers. After Dredd and Anderson arrest one of Ma-Ma’s high-ranking clan members, the gang overtakes the slum’s security center and locks the two Judges inside the 200-storey structure. With ammo low and nowhere to hide, Ma-Ma unleashes a relentless army of killers who will stop at nothing to kill Dredd and Anderson.
Shockingly brutal and the very definition of tough, Dredd 3D never allows the action to get too out of hand or take over the film completely. There are a number of hard-hitting action scenes that do satisfy but the brooding mood in between these sequences is what really keeps us on our toes. Travis smartly builds suspense around the fact that our protagonists have their backs against the wall and ammo is scarce. Dredd and Anderson have to constantly pause to fully assess the situation that they find themselves in and devise a plan to quietly slip by the endless waves of trigger-happy gangsters who wish to make Ma-Ma proud. Some may deem that disappointing or, dare I say, boring, but it does make for a number of tense sequences that will have you chewing on your fingernails. Dredd 3D also finds a bit of relevancy in the inclusion of SLO-MO, the drug that is rapidly spreading through Mega-City One like cancer. Any time the drug or its terrifying side effects are mentioned, you can’t help but think of all the new drugs that have been making their way into the hands of America’s youth today (bath salts, 2C-I). Don’t worry, Dredd 3D isn’t a full on anti-drug commercial with an inflated budget, but it does get you thinking and there is nothing wrong with that.
Then we have Karl Urban’s awesomely gruff Dredd, who conceals his mug behind that mean-looking helmet and allows his mouth to droop into a scruffy frown. Dredd is incredibly fascinating even if we virtually know nothing about him. At one point, Anderson uses her psychic abilities to discover that Dredd is hiding some pain and anger underneath that cool helmet but we never learn what that pain and anger stems from. Dredd can also be darkly hilarious, especially when a couple of young wannabe thugs decide they are going to confront him. Anderson certainly has her fair share of emotional baggage and she ends up with even more as she trains to be a full on Judge. As the situations she faces become more and more disturbing, doubt begins to set in. Then there is Lena Headey’s Ma-Ma, one of the most fun comic book movie villains I’ve seen in quite a while. She nearly steals the show with her junkie slump, her hacked hair, her rotten teeth, and scarred face. She is eerily calm as she aims a Gatling gun at Dredd and mows down countless innocent bystanders. She is truly a villain that you want to see Dredd confront and execute. Believe me.
At a slim and trim ninety minutes, there is never a dull moment in Dredd 3D. There is countless glimmering slow motion shots that find bullets barreling through faces as blood and brain bits come dancing out of the screen at us. One scene finds the camera acting as the POV of one of Ma-Ma’s victims as they tumble 200-stories to their death. If you suffer from acrophobia, you may want to close your eyes during that particular scene. There is one sequence that finds Anderson entering the mind of one of Ma-Ma’s thugs and I will warn you, it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. The film does seem to run out of steam at the end, especially during the final showdown between Ma-Ma and Dredd. You fully expect there to be plenty of fireworks but it is a fairly calm confrontation that leaves the viewer wanting a little more. You’d at least expect Ma-Ma to put up more of a fight, especially since she is so sadistic through the other eighty minutes of the film. Still, Dredd 3D makes good use of its R-rating and it certainly doesn’t hesitate to deliver on all the blood, guts, and gore you can handle. The film also had a pretty effective score; a thumping industrial beat from Paul Leonard-Morgan that uses filthy synths to compliment the decaying steel of Peach Trees. With Mega-City One being such a sprawling metropolis, I firmly believe that we haven’t seen the last of Urban’s Dredd. There is plenty more to explore with this character and I hope that he gets a follow up. Overall, if you’re sick of the Resident Evil franchise and looking for some edgy action to shake you out of your early fall ennui, Dredd 3D will do the trick.
by Steve Habrat
I wish that audiences paid more attention to visionary director Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 superhero film Hellboy, a funky and gothic monster mash that practically explodes with creativity. Based on Mike Mignola’s Dark Horse comic book of the same name, Hellboy seems like an absurd premise but because del Toro gives his ragtag group of ghouls a human heart, the film becomes a real charmer. Credit should also go to Ron Pearlman’s performance as the big red crime fighter who loves a good cigar, has a hopeless crush on a colleague, weakens at the knees for a Baby Ruth, and just can’t resist a kitten. While many may not be able to wrap their heads around a demonic superhero, Hellboy rewards those who will give him a chance with tons of monster-on-monster brawls, nightmarish critters who prowl the subways of New York City, and plenty of quirky one liners to really allow Hellboy himself to come to life. Oh, and did I mention young love? While Hellboy hasn’t aged particularly well since its release, del Toro keeps things timeless by his use of tons of outstanding make-up and icky puppets that will simultaneously make your skin crawl and give you nightmares. Not bad for a comic book movie.
Hellboy begins during the final days World War II, taking us to a stormy island off the coast of Scotland where a handful of American soldiers and the young Professor Broom (Played by John Hurt) are spying on a small band of Nazi soldiers performing a strange occult ritual that would awaken “The Seven Gods of Chaos”, monstrous creatures that slumber in another dimension. This ritual is being led by Grigori Rasputin (Played by Karel Roden), his mistress, Ilsa (Played by Bridget Hodson), and monitored by the gas-masked Kroenen (Played by Ladislav Beran), Hitler’s top assassin. The American soldiers attack half way through the ritual and stop the Nazi’s before any dangerous creatures get through the portal that has been opened. Rasputin manages to get sucked through the portal and shrapnel kills Kroenen, or so the Americans think, but the world is saved from annihilation. As the soldiers and Professor Broom explore the site, they discover a strange little creature that is all red and has a massive stone hand. Professor Broom determines that the creature means no harm and begins looking after the little fella. The soldiers decide to name the creature “Hellboy” due to his bizarre and demonic appearance. Fast-forward to present day where adult Hellboy (Played by Ron Pearlman) works for a super secret organization called the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. With the help of the psychic amphibious humanoid Abe Sapien (Played by Doug Jones), beautiful pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Played by Selma Blair), rookie agent John Meyers (Played by Rupert Evans), and Professor Broom, Hellboy battles bizarre critters that mean to unleash destruction on Earth.
Hellboy wins the audience over instantly with Ron Pearlman’s devoted performance as Hellboy, a towering man-child who files his horns down to fit in with society, something that he never sees yet longs for. He ends up grounded by Professor Broom for sneaking out of the underground facility he calls his home and having a picture snapped of him, which inevitably ends up on the news. Debates rage over the existence of Hellboy on talk shows, all theories debunked by Tom Manning (Played by Jeffery Tambor), a grouchy FBI Director who loathes the big red beast. It is a blast when Hellboy sneaks out on Halloween to meet up with Liz, who has checked herself in to a mental institution after multiple accidents that involve her fiery ability. He steals a six-pack and begs Liz to have a good time but she is reluctant, which deflates the lovable oaf. It is in these little moments that we really find ourselves rooting for Hellboy, even more than we do when he is rumbling with a drooling demonic creature with tentacles slithering out of its head. In fact, his job almost looks like it gets on his nerves and is just a giant inconvenience. Things really get tough for Hellboy when Meyers begins moving in on Liz, a move that drives Hellboy bonkers. This sets a knee-slapping immature rivalry into motion that culminates in Hellboy, who has a chocolate chip cooking dangling from his mouth, tossing stones at Meyers, who is trying the old yawn and stretch trick to put his arm around Liz. Boys will be boys!
While Pearlman steals the show, his supporting players are not too shabby themselves. Blair was born to play the perpetually frowning Liz, who curls inside wool coats with a hat pulled over her jet-black bangs, wearing a withdrawn look on her pretty face. She becomes a gothic heroine to a million girls in black t-shirts and combat boots. And then there is Doug Jones as the slinky Abe Sapien, a soft-spoken and thoughtful sidekick who tries to keep Hellboy in check. He is the cool head to the loose cannon (del Toro symbolically represents that in their skin color, cool blue on Abe and hot head red on Hellboy). Tamobor is hilarious as Tom Manning, who is consistently appalled by the belligerent behavior of his horned employee. John Hurt is marvelous as the gentle father figure who looks over these crazy kids, stepping in when they get a little too wild. Rupert Evans is appropriately fidgety as Hellboy’s rival and it is hysterical to watch Hellboy try to come to terms with this new hotshot member on his team. Then there is Roden’s Rasputin, a typical sunglasses-wearing baddie who is hell-bent on reducing the world to ashes. His evil plot is a bit yawn inducing considering it has been done several times before but his henchmen spice things up. When Hodson’s Ilsa isn’t making your hair stand on end with her glassy-eyed dedication, Beran’s acrobatic assassin Kroenen will. Beran is one of the coolest comic book baddies, sporting one hell of a gas mask and spinning around blades like he came out of the womb doing it.
While the elaborate monsters that del Toro’s FX shop spits out are remarkable works of art, the real draw is the actors who are bound and determined to make Hellboy a keeper. They succeed with flying colors as I preferred the moments where the characters were interacting with one another over the scenes where things are blowing up. Even though they have to ooze sentiment through heaping gobs of spirit gum, Jones and Pearlman manage to pull of the almost impossible and make their character heartwarming. There is plenty of exhilarating action sequences that are a marvel to drink in but Hellboy just misses greatness due to a routine finale that finds Rasputin threatening to unleash giant monsters on New York City. The film also trips over some dated computer effects, which are glaringly out of place when they are piled onto del Toro’s jaw-dropping puppets. The plot of Hellboy is also thinly spread over the course of its two-hour runtime but there is enough adolescent shenanigans and young romance to keep you smiling. Ah, if only fitting in and scoring a date with the girl was as easy as turning a demonic hellhound to ash.
Hellboy is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Severed heads as high art? Welcome to the world of Zack Snyder’s 300, a chiseled slice of masculinity based on the comic series by Frank Miller that enjoys shouting at the top of its lungs over the endless swirl of slaughter at its center. Considered the ultimate “guy movie”, 300 looks like a painting that has sprung to spitting and snarling life as CGI blood splashes across the sea of clanking swords. This carnage is beautiful, this battle a barreling ballet of firm defiance and ferocity but one that we have seen previous times in countless other period epics of this sort, here it just boasts an extra layer of gloss. 300 sells itself on the idea that it is going to rethink that sword-and-sandals epic and to an extent it does, that is if any of what 300 has to offer came as a surprise to the audience. It is hard to believe that Snyder and Warner Bros. would be so eager to show us everything their film had to offer before we have even seen it but that is the sad truth about 300. If you saw the trailer for the movie, you basically saw the best parts of this picture. The only thing you are missing out on is the severed limbs that dance across the screen and a soft-core sex scene that further earns the R-rating for nudity. Let’s be honest here, you are not coming into this film to hear any of these beefcakes deliver their lines. You came to this party for the sex and violence, now get in line.
300 begins with a flashback narrated by Dilios (Played by David Wenham), a Spartan solider, who explains the back-story and training of Leonidas, the man who would become king of Sparta. The back-story details the fierce training that a Spartan child goes through, molding them into hardened warriors hungry for battle and victory. The film then flashes ahead and introduces us to adult Leonidas (Played by Gerard Butler), who is now the valiant king of Sparta. One peaceful day, a Persian messenger rides into Sparta and demands that all of the people of Sparta submit to God-King Xerxes (Played by Rodrigo Santoro). King Leonidas and his wife, Queen Gorgo (Played by Lena Headey), refuse to submit to the God-King and his loyal group of Spartan soldiers kick the messenger and his accompanying soldiers down the biggest well you have ever laid eyes on. Leonidas knows that murdering the messenger has provoked a Persian attack so he seeks out the Ephors, a corrupt group of leprosy-ridden priests who have to give to okay for war. The Ephors refuse to give their blessing to Leonidas and facing annihilation at the hands of the Persians, the brave King rounds up 300 of his bravest and strongest soldiers to meet the Persians at Thermopylae, where the Persians’ numbers will count for nothing against the Spartan’s superior fighting techniques. Meanwhile, Gorgo has to deal with corrupt politicians behind the walls of Sparta.
The ultimate exercise in visual brawn over screenplay brain, 300 gets far despite not having much going on upstairs. It is no secret that many have viewed 300 as a conservative comment on the War on Terror and as you look closer, it is easy to see how history has been used to mirror present day realities. The problem with 300 is that it doesn’t have anything particularly insightful to say about the War on Terror and instead glorifies the art of war, putting more emphasis on the art than the horrors of battle. 300 also seems to exists to feed the masculine egos of all the alpha males who hang on every shriek that erupts from the mouths of the Spartans. Anyone who lacks chest hair practically grows some instantly just by touching the DVD case. And while there is some flexing action to be found, most of the fighting has been already glimpsed in the spirited trailer that almost everyone has seen. There is some fun to be had in the montages of combat but it becomes a bit redundant and meaningless as the Spartans hack their way through one eccentric clan after another. It begins to feel like a video game after a while, complete with boss rounds.
The one thing I have to praise Snyder for is the way that he casts a group of unknown actors and actresses. This allows the characters of 300 to really come to life rather than be overshadowed by a familiar face that is plastered all over the tabloids. Gerard Butler disappears into the role of King Leonidas and now it is hard for me to take him seriously in other roles that he tackles. A blessing and a curse, I’m afraid. Butler does do a pretty good job with the one–dimensional role that Snyder dumps on him. All the role requires is a perfect physique and the ability to yell really loud. Luckily, Butler becomes a teeth-gritting force that does allow affection to bleed through his masculine intensity. Lena Headey is present for eye-candy but she insists on have the strength of twenty Spartan men, which is welcome in this sea of alpha males. Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes is asked to portray the God-King as an ostentatious ruler who is clearly a homosexual. While I understand he is supposed to be the villain here, you can’t help but pick up on negative light shed on his sexuality, which further adds to the conservative reading of the film. The other familiar face is Michael Fassbender as Stelios, an eager warrior who gets the film’s coolest line. Naturally, he is a standout here, which should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with him.
While it may rethink the sword-and-sandals epic visually, 300 doesn’t do much for narrative but you don’t really care. There is plenty here to entertain you for its two hour runtime and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The battle between the masked Immortals and the Spartans is the highlight of the film and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see the superior fighting style of the Spartans (they brag about it enough!). Still, you can’t help but yearn for more flesh and blood authenticity in all the artificiality but what you see is what you get. You will also long for some sort of a surprise but very few will come your way, so don’t hold your breath. Grabbing history by the hair, dousing it in comic book colors, and then doing a bit of lazy rewiring, Snyder takes a step back from the incisive filmmaking and storytelling that he showed us with his spry remake of Dawn of the Dead. With 300, he just can’t seem to shake his obsessive infatuation with the eye candy and that is the ultimate disappointment. Still, you’ll root for these 300 Spartans until the very end even if you know the outcome. So sit back, crack open a PBR, and marvel at the many ways that severed heads can spin through the air.
300 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.