THIS IS SPARTA
(2 and 1/2 out of 4 stars)
DIRECTED BY ZACK SNYDER
STARRING: GERARD BUTLER, LENA HEADEY,
DOMINIC WEST, DAVID WENHAM, VINCENT REGAN,
118 MINUTES, RATED R
Whether you like 300, the historical epic based on the graphic novel from Sin City creator Frank Miller, or not will depend to a large extent on how you feel about the idea of spending two solid hours watching hordes of muscle-bound guys smacking each other with swords while wearing little more than leather jockstraps and canola oil. If this sounds like your cup of tea, it is likely that you will enjoy the picture immensely. On the other hand, if you are one of those people silly enough to require something of substance in your broadsword-based entertainment, 300 will seem as nothing more than a highly-stylized version of a B-movie programmer that will leave you feeling trapped between a rock and a hard pec.
Set in 480 BC, 300 opens as the massive Persian army, led by the fearsome Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), begins an exceptionally aggressive expansion policy that consists of taking over every bit of land in its grasp and laying siege to anyone who dares oppose them. This plan hits a snag when they reach Sparta, a land where the men have been trained since early childhood to become the finest and fiercest warriors possible. Even the Persians realize how adept the Spartans are, and so instead of simply trying to sack the land, they send an emissary to convey to King Leonidas (Gerald Butler) that they will leave the city alone as long as they agree to submit to the rule of Xerxes.
“That’s a bit of a problem,” replies Leonidas (presumably, it sounded better in the original Greek), and he and his men quickly dispose of the Persian party in the nastiest way possible. Of course, Leonidas realizes that this means war, and he quickly whips up a brilliant plan: he and 300 of his finest warriors will head off Xerxes and his 100,000 soldiers at the mountain pass at Thermopylae and channel them into a narrow canyon that will greatly diminish the effectiveness of their overwhelming numbers.
After consulting with their oracle (which just happens to be a half-naked and comely lass who appears to be channeling Elizabeth Berkley in full Showgirls mode), the mystical elders of Sparta refuse to allow Leonidas to go through with his plan—they claim that the battle is un-winnable and will lead only to the unnecessary deaths of his men. What they don’t realize is that Leonidas pretty much knows that it is a suicide mission—his real agenda is to stall the Persians in order to give his council enough time to convince the other Greek cities to pool their men together to form an army large enough to repel the invaders.
Defying the oracle, Leonidas takes the men to Thermopylae and leads the Spartans into bloody and victorious battle against one wave of weird-looking combatants after another while Xerxes constantly cackles about his imminent defeat. For a while, the Persians are stymied, until one former Spartan, a deformed weirdo whose battle services were declined by Leonidas, offers to show Xerxes a way to outflank them in exchange for money and power.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) tries to rally support to send reinforcements, and winds up submitting to the sexual whims of the sleazy Theron (Dominic West) in an effort to win his support. (Later on, Theron illustrates one of the most important lessons of political treachery—if you are planning on going back on your word and selling out your people for money and power, it is never a good idea to carry incontestable proof of said treachery on your person.)
As with Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow before it, 300 was filmed by shooting its live-action actors against a green screen and then creating all the backgrounds via computers to create an ultra-stylized world that looks and feels like the pages of Miller’s original work come to life. In a film such as this, the look is initially striking, but if it is to succeed as a whole, it has to either provide one eye-popping visual after another or other factors—such as a compelling plot or interesting characters—have to kick in at some point or it runs the risk of being just an empty exercise in style.
Sin City, for example, had a great visual style, but it also told a trio of entertaining stories that honored the conventions of film noir while still having fun with them, and it provided strong, soulful performances from a cast including: Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, and Bruce Willis. By comparison, 300 starts off strong enough with its arresting visuals and an entertaining prologue that explains the history of Sparta in general and Leonidas in particular. However, once the Spartans arrive at Thermopylae, the film comes to an impasse as well, as it descends into one look-alike battle after another between our heroes and their weirdo antagonists.
For director Zack Snyder, this is the follow-up film to his 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, and his approach to the fight scenes is strangely similar to the zombie attacks in that earlier work—wave upon wave of attackers swarm up and are chopped to bit by our heroes until they are finally overwhelmed toward the end. That approach kind of worked for Dawn of the Dead, because that film was, at its heart, basically a bubble-headed horror film with little on its mind other than staining the screen red. 300, on the other hand, would seem to have the potential to go off in any number of intriguing directions and to see it stick to the most superficial interpretation possible will come as a disappointment to anyone silly enough to come to the film expecting something other than a wildly expensive version of one of those old Steve Reeves Hercules semi-extravaganzas.
Another key flaw to the film is the painful miscasting of the role of Leonidas. In order for a film of this type to work, you need to find an actor who is both physically convincing and able to deliver the extra-cheesy dialogue with enough straight-faced conviction to make you believe the emotions even while you might be snickering at the purple prose—Charlton Heston in Ben Hur and Russell Crowe in Gladiator immediately spring to mind as perfect examples of such performances.
For the bold and brawny Leonidas, 300 sticks us with Gerard Butler—the guy that you forgot was the star of the misbegotten The Phantom of the Opera even while you were watching it—and he just simply doesn’t have what the role takes to make it work. Yes, he has beefed himself up considerably from a physical standpoint, but he just doesn’t have the imposing force or passion that allows us to believe him for a second while swinging his sword around and uttering lines such as, “Into Hell’s mouth we march!”.
Hell, even Lena Headey cuts a more imposing figure in her role as Queen Gorgo—even though the subplot involving her character isn’t very interesting, she delivers lines such as, “Only Spartan women give birth to real men!” with the appropriate vigor and has the kind of imposing physical presence that inadvertently suggests to those of us in the audience that she, and not Leonidas, wears the jerkin in the family. (Of course, it doesn’t help that of the two, she is clearly the one with the bigger chest.)
300 isn’t completely terrible by any means—there are some arresting individual visual moments here and there (such as a mammoth tree strewn with hundreds of corpses), some amusing lines of mock-heroic dialogue (“Pile the Persians high—we are in for one wild night!”), and a cheerful willingness to spill blood and guts with reckless abandon at a time when every other action film seems to be cutting back in an effort to score the all-important PG-13 rating.
I can even see myself sitting down to watch a few minutes of it here and there, if I came upon it on cable in a year or so. However, considering the promise of the subject matter and the time and energy that clearly went into producing it, the film comes up short. The real-life Battle of Thermopylae is said to have helped bring forth the world’s first true democracy—by comparison, the grandest claim one can make for 300 is that it is at least somewhat better than Troy.