March 11, 2007

300: Guys Movie Night

300A brawny and single-minded battle movie, 300 is linear and direct in its purpose, like a spear to the gut. I found the photography, production design, costumes and effects to be superb. Gerard Butler is compelling as the ancient Spartan king Leonidas. His pointy beard is frickin awesome! However, I found the battles as a whole to be repetitive, and the story slow and boring. I don't think sophomore director Zack Snyder (Dawn Of The Dead) can be held completely responsible for the monotony- I think the nature of the material is inferior to other ancient battle movies (more on that below).

The 300 Spartan warriors of the title are an elite fighting force of the larger Spartan army. Sparta's warrior leader and king, Leonidas, is offered an ultimatum by an emmissary of the decadent Persian emperor Xerxes: become subjects of Xerxes' empire, or be destroyed. Unfortunately, Leonidas has never heard the expression "don't shoot the messenger" because it hasn't been coined yet, so he takes the less diplomatic route. He hollers "THIS IS SPARTA!" and kicks the emmissary into a convenient nearby bottomless pit. Meanwhile I was left thinking "If you kill the entire Persian detachment, who's going to go back to Xerxes and tell him 'go screw'? Why did they build this pit in the middle of the town square? Do they really use it that often? What would OSHA think of this? The bottomless pit was kind of like a trampoline or a swimming pool you don't use that often- it takes up your whole backyard, and it's an attractive nuisance. Now that I think about it, if a Spartan fell down there and no one witnessed it, you'd never know where they went! Wouldn't a pit which was deep enough to break every bone in your body be deep enough? At least dig your pit on the outskirts of town, not right in a high traffic area!

Anyway, let's move on. After Leonidas decides to defend Sparta from the Persians, the Spartan Council of elders refuses to support a defensive war. Leonidas and his 300 are left to hold back wave after wave of invading hordes on their own, staging their defense at the bottleneck of The Hot Gates.

Based on the monochromatic graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley (The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City), 300 offers great cinematography. The color palette is limited in post-production, much like Sin City and O Brother Where Art Thou. The images are intentionally grainy, which subtly places this ancient story in historical context— perhpas a movie which takes place over 2000 years ago should not be crystal clear 70mm?

The meat of the movie are its fighting sequences. The choreography of the combat is impressive. I have seen far too many movies where slow-motion is overused and without purpose (the most recent example is Michael Bay's The Island). There is plenty of slo-mo in 300, but I found it appropriate and thrilling. The realism of the stabbing, impaling, and dismembering is perfect. The blood spattering is stylized, but well done.

Where 300 fails is putting its hand-to-hand combat into a larger context. Their battling is not part of a bigger war, there is no strategy. They kick ass against Horde Wearing Silly Hats, they win, they rest. Next: they kick ass against Ninjas wearing Scary Masks, they win, they rest. Repeat. Every battle is fought on the same nondescript patch of ground. Most of the action between warriors doesn't include much background action or context. The voice over narration by Spartan Dilios (David Wenham, Faramir from Lord of the Rings) makes it clear how 300 warriors could hold off an army of thousands for so long, but their campaign is boringly straightforward.

In this age of ancient battles in cinema, 300 simply cannot hold up to comparison to other, superior battle movies like Braveheart, Gladiator, and Lord Of The Rings. Even the mediocre Troy had characters we cared about: of the 300 Spartans of the title, the only ones with any characterization are King Leonidas, Dilios, The King's captain, the captain's son, "Keanu Reeves Lookalike" (who thankfully gets decapitated), and that's basically it. All the other 296 Spartans simply grunt, kill, and look manly in their leather briefs.

Pacing: the opening 20 minutes were murderously slow: we learn about the King's upbringing as a warrior, that's all good. But the political "intrigue" which gets the plot going is incredibly boring. I even found a sex scene tedious (and since when do they put a sex scene in the first 20 minutes?) Once the King decides to defy the council and march to war, they march, they meet some other warriors, they march some more, they build a wall of corpses (don't ask), and I just kept waiting for some ass kicking! Finally the first horde arrives, but after that's done, we return to Sparta, where the King's wife is attempting to negotiate for Council support for zzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZ...... The King's wife is played by Lena Headey, who looks like a hybrid of Connie Nielsen in Gladiator and Saffron Burrows in Troy, with the voice of Keira Knightley.

Perhaps I am being too hard on a movie which I'm giving a B minus grade, but it shouldn't be so hard to please me when making a movie which promises to kick asses. Plus, the bar is set pretty high by Braveheart, Gladiator, and Lord Of The Rings, so if you're going to deal in shields and swords, you gotta bring something new. The production values, cinematography, effects, and choreography were all top-flight, but everything else was neglected. (Regal Fenway Stadium 13, with George, Ilan, and Jed)