300

4 Stars
Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 117 minutes
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Zack Snyder must be a glutton for punishment. First, he dares to direct the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, sending Romero fans into spasms of rage which barely subsided even when the finished product turned out better than expected. And next year he’s tackling Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” a property many comic fans feel is too layered and thematically dense to work as a two or three hour movie.

But that’s next year. Right now there’s “300,” Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic about the Battle of Thermopylae, in which a handful of Spartan and Greek soldiers valiantly held off a an invading Persian army. “Sin City,” the most recent work of Miller’s brought to the big screen, was a critical and box office success, leaving us to wonder if Snyder has it in him to do justice to the source material.

By way of answering that, let me say that the “Watchmen” movie looks to be in good hands.

It’s 480 BC, and the Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) has a problem: a force of some 200,000 Persians is approaching Greece. Led by the “god-king” Xerxes, the Persians are looking for a little payback for their loss to the Greeks at Marathon 10 years earlier. The Spartan council is reluctant to send the entire army, since their oracle has informed them that they can’t win. Creating a new loophole, Leonidas “goes for a stroll” with his personal bodyguard of 300 handpicked soldiers and marches to the coast to meet the invaders.

Leonidas’ plan is to force the Persians in the narrow bottleneck known as the Hot Gates, thus stalling their advance until his wife (Lena Headey) can plead with the council to send the entire army, a plan opposed by the evil Theron (“The Wire’s” Dominic West), who has his own designs on the queen.

Battle is eventually joined, and for the next 90 minutes we’re treated to some of the most enjoyably over-the-top hyperviolence I’ve seen in quite a while. The fighting rarely lets up, and then only long enough for Leonidas or one of his comrades to make a quip at the expense of their antagonists. These Spartans are equal parts John Rambo, Conan the Cimmerian, and John McClane. I feel comfortable enough in my (relative lack of) masculinity to say that if I had to stand in the presence of these men for more than ten seconds, I’d spontaneously grow a pair of ovaries.

This is no small feat, for if Zack Snyder stuck even more closely to Miller’s source material and depicted the Spartan warriors in the nude, “300” would officially be the gayest movie ever made. As it is, with the bulk of running time occupied with glistening pectorals and half-naked guys drenched in blood and sweat as they mow down wave after wave of attacking Persians, it’s still pretty close. I’d put it somewhere between “Top Gun” and “Commando” in terms of homoerotic military epics.

Shot almost entirely against a green screen, the movie is an incredibly stylized representation of the battle. There’s a fine line between “visually arresting” and “annoying,” however. For all the bounteous CG shenanigans going on, would it have hurt Snyder to shoot a few of the fight scenes at normal speed? The first time we see alternately slow-motion and accelerated footage of Leonidas laying waste to a score of enemies, it’s interesting to watch. The second (and third, and fourth) time we see it, it becomes a little tiresome. Fortunately, Snyder and company keep the action lively with a variety of enemies and supply enough spewing blood and severed limbs to satisfy the inner bloodlust of all but the most depraved gorehound.

There are also some obvious modern parallels, the most significant of which is a scene in which a Spartan frames the struggle between Greece and Persia as democracy casting aside “mysticism and tyranny.” A noble sentiment, and I wonder how the ancient Greeks would feel knowing so little headway has been made in that area.

Finally, it’s a given that the further one gets away from a historical event, the more licenses they’re allowed to take. There’s only one authoritative account of Thermopylae, written by Herodotus some 40 years after the fact, so nobody but students of Greek and Persian history are going to be offended by the depiction of Xerxes as a cross between Yul Brynner’s Rameses and Jaye Davidson in “Stargate,” or the fact that Leonidas actually had several thousand Greeks at his disposal until the final day of the battle. “300” is a feast for the senses (well, two of them anyway) and an impressive technical achievement. More than that, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.



Posted on March 10, 2007 in Reviews by
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