Saturday, March 10, 2007

In Theaters: 300

[Yet another CanMag steal]

Historical epics are a difficult genre for me. They're often too solemn for their own good, while at the same time oversimplifying things to give us easily identifiable good guys and bad guys (I don't object to the distortion of history per se, but I never understand when it's used to make the story less interesting.) 300 is pretty much guilty of the latter, presenting the Battle of Thermopylae entirely from the perspective of the Spartan forces and casting the story as one of bold sacrifice in the name of insurmountable odds. However, in doing so, the movie becomes less about history and more about myth; it's a faithful adaptation of a 1998 comic book series by Frank Miller and Lynne Varley (itself apparently inspired when Miller saw the movie THE 300 SPARTANS on TV), depicting the conflict in an exaggerated near-fantasy style, often breaking with anything that could be considered realism even by the least knowledgeable viewer (and it's not like I know that much about Greece in 480 B.C.E.) This is actually a good approach; we don't have to think about what's been changed because we're blatantly not meant to take any of it as truth, and so can get on enjoying the action as spectacle. It also raises some questions about the subjective nature of myth and cultural history, and how the latter becomes the former; the visceral easily overwhelms the intellectual, but it's not completely brainless. That said, if you'll the least bit interested in seeing this film to begin with, what you want to know is if the action is kickass. That it most certainly is.

Gerard Butler plays King Leonidas of Sparta, one of many Greek nations being targeted by the super-powerful Persian Empire, under the rule of Emperor Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) who fancies himself a god. Leonidas refuses to pay any sort of tribute to the Persians, and so war becomes inevitable. Unfortunately, it is around the time of a major religious festival in the city, and the local oracles counsel against going to war. The Spartan council agrees, and refuses to release the city's army. So Leonidas decides to gather a personal "bodyguard" of 300 men, and lead them to the steep mountain pass at Thermopylae, hoping to force the tens of thousands of Persian soldiers into a siege. It helps that the Spartans are a warrior culture, each male being expertly trained in combat, in excellent physical shape, and holding a very high opinion of his ability. They actually seem to stand a solid chance, until a betrayal by a deformed shepherd (Andrew Tiernan under tons of makeup) makes a glorious defeat inevitable. There's a subplot involving Leonidas' wife, the extremely unfortunately named Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), trying to convince the council to reverse their decision and send more men, but of course we know the film is called 300 and not 300,000.

The film is narrated by Dilios (David Wenham, whom you may recognize as Faramir from the latter two LORD OF THE RINGS films), one of the 300 who is sent home to deliver the word when it becomes clear the battle will be hopeless. Though the film often shows us things he couldn't possibly have been around to see, this device rather ingeniously explains and encompasses all the movie's radical distortions. The original comic has been criticized for overly boosting Spartan culture, and accused of racism in its demonization of the mostly dark-skinned Persian enemy, and the film doesn't make many attempts at modern sensitivity. However, the fact that this is the unreliable narration of a Spartan, attempting to use this story to rally the whole of Greece, clues us in that we're not supposed to take the movie as accurate, let alone look at it with modern eyes. That is, if the wizards and monsters weren't indication enough. What we see in the movie is exactly the kind of distortion of stories that took place throughout the ancient world, and given the Spartans' high opinion of themselves, this is pretty much how you would expect them to tell the story. It adds an interesting level to the film, showing how history becomes myth, while at the same time making things so amoral that any ideological concerns become irrelevant. We like the Spartans because they are the heroes, but we don't necessarily want to live in a culture where sickly infants are thrown off cliffs and seven-year-olds are sent into the wilderness. We just enjoy the way they fight.

But all that aside, how is the violence? Quite good. The battle scenes are so stylized as to attain a kind of beauty normally found mostly in kung-fu epics. The same applies to the gore, which isn't nearly as hard to take as one would expect as a result- even the blood seems slightly off-color. Zack Snyder also directed the recent DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, and though I felt not all of that film's action was effective, here he avoids jittery camerawork and overly quick cutting in favor of capturing the beauty and precision of the original comic art. The blend of live action and CGI, with all sorts of digital grading done to enhance the unreality of things, is quite effective. The visual spectacle is augmented with a modest yet appreciable amount of nudity, and straight women and gay men will appreciate the fact that pretty much 90% of the screen time is taken up with images of shirtless well-toned men wearing underwear and capes. So there's something for everyone.

Gerard Butler brings an appropriately high level of gusto to a part that is basically all speechifying; the rest of the cast generally follow suit. The scenes focusing on the Queen (apparently an addition- I have not read the original comic) do have a tendency to slow the film up a bit, but they do have an excellent payoff.

I went into 300 having no particular expectations, but came out quite impressed. Though not as moving as 2005's SIN CITY, 300 takes a unique approach to its subject matter, turning its historical inaccuracies into the main reason to buy a ticket. It's a wonderfully rousing action picture seasoned with just a hint of irony, inspiring but hard to take too seriously. All of the great storytellers liked to play havoc with the facts; it made things more fun. If nothing else, the film reminds us of this.

Based on the comic book by Frank Miller & Lynne Varley
Screenplay by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, and Michael Gordon
Directed by Zack Snyder

Grade: A-

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