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.