Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Rodrigo Santoro, Andrew Tiernan, Stephen McHattie
Running Time: 117 min.
** (out of ****)
Make no mistake about it, 300 is a film about one thing: killing people. Killing them in the most brutal, graphic, creative and exciting ways possible for two hours straight. That's it. There's nothing more to it. That the movie is a visually groundbreaking and technically unlike anything ever committed to film strangely makes this experience all the more frustrating. I actually had to restrain myself when assigning this film a star rating because if I judged it based on my expectations going in and the hype surrounding it, I would have awarded it somewhere in the ballpark of one star. I have to be fair though and admit, despite being extremely disappointed, that it is for the most part a well directed film and come Oscar time it does deserve all of the technical nominations it'll likely receive.
The movie is such a wonder to look at and listen to it becomes a shame that exists just for those reasons only because this could have been so much more than just a series of beautifully shot fight sequences. If we had more invested in the story and cared about the characters this could have actually been the masterwork everyone is proclaiming it to be. It sent fans into orgasm at last year's Comic-Con when they got their first glimpse of images from the film (which is based upon Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name) and it isn't hard to see why. Having not read the novel I could still give a pretty good guess that director Zack Snyder stayed very true to the source material. This isn't just based on a comic book. It is one in virtually every way. Unfortunately that asset becomes its greatest liability.
The story of 300 is a retelling of the ancient Battle of Thermplylae, which took place in 480 B.C. and saw King Leonidas lead 300 outnumbered Spartan soldiers into battle against the superior Persian forces under the command of King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, made up to look like a drag queen). As the film shows us interestingly in its opening scenes Leonidas has trained since childhood to become a warrior and now leaves behind his wife Queen Gorga (Lena Headey) and young son to head out into a war they have no chance of winning. If the movie is trying to tell us something it's probably some kind of message about how this leader and their soldiers when faced with insurmountable adversity demonstrated honor, courage, determination and blah blah blah. Who are we kidding? This movie isn't trying to tell us anything about the Battle of Thermplylae. It's not trying to tell us what motivates the arrogant Leonidas and his soldiers or give us any insight into his relationship with his wife. Read a history book if you're interested.
300 is trying to tell us they're are a lot of cool ways to kill people, made all that much cooler here with a dazzling assortment of computer generated effects and slow motion photography. It's also telling us that if you put in some serious time at the gym you too can get really ripped. It takes some hard work but you can do it. If you do, who knows, you may be able to earn a spot as an extra in 400. This is a videogame not a movie. And it's not just any videogame either, but one of those games that all parents fear their children will get their hands on because it's just one senseless kill after another. It's a celebration of violence without anything that slightly resembles a plot. The images are incredible and the fight scenes beyond spectacular, but if that's all I wanted I would just head over to Game Stop right now and actually buy the game. I want a movie that tells a story I care about supplemented with spectacular fight sequences, which are usually much more effective when they mean something.
The strange thing about this film is that while these scenes are an adrenaline rush like no other, the film drags in just about every other place where it attempts to present anything that resembles a storyline or when dialogue is spoken. Those in the industry who rally against voiceover narration will have a field day here as this film demonstrates how bad things can get when its used unnecessarily, as it causes nothing but distractions here. The voice in question belongs to Spartan soldier Dilios (David Wenham, eerily resembling a short-haired version of wrestler Triple H) and he occasionally breaks in during the action to deliver eloquently ridiculous dialogue that I'm guessing comes from Frank Miller's novel but I can't be completely sure. Either way, it's bad. Do we need someone telling us there's been a death when a spear is sticking out of their stomach or their head is rolling on the ground?
There's also some nonsense having to do with the Queen feuding with a scheming member of The Spartan Council (played by Dominic West) who doesn't think they should be going to battle. Some have seen this as evidence 300 takes a pro-Bush right wing stance, but they're giving the film way too much credit. Not only because the graphic novel from which it was based came out in 1998, but because they're falsely assuming this movie contains any ideas at all. As for the performances they're all fine. That's not the problem here, but I do have to say I don't understand how Headey's work qualifies as a "breakthrough performance." It's clear she's just there to look hot and goes topless, but honestly, I've seen other actresses do that better. Butler yells "SPARTA!" and broods accordingly as Leonidas but he does have a great screen presence, enough that I was curious what he could have done with an actual character.
When the first hour of the film ended I wondered what could possibly be left because it seemed like Snyder (slowly) burned through the entire narrative in 60 minutes. Then I realized he was done. No problem though. They'll just be fighting for the last hour. The onslaught of green screen effects in this film are very reminiscent of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and another Frank Miller comic adaptation, Sin City. Except those films had ideas and memorable characters to go along with the action. The only character that I found the slightest bit interesting was a deformed hunchback (Michael Tiernan) ostracized by Leonidas and the Spartans, but even that promising sub-plot wasn't developed to its full potential.
I'm sure I'll get a lot of readers saying I'm "missing the point" and this movie is just supposed to be fun, mindless entertainment with kick ass battle scenes. I should just lighten up and judge it for what it is. I can see that point, but if we go by that standard then we should never criticize a Michael Bay film ever again. When this movie ended I actually felt sympathy for Bay for being continuously ripped to shreds for bombarding us with mindless popcorn movies. Say what you want about him, but even in his worst films there's a story in their somewhere and he's at least trying.
300 has expensive CGI, but really, what else is there? I find it funny everyone is quick to put the label of "torture porn" on horror movies like Saw and Hostel but this senselessly violent movie gets a pass. Why? Because it's about war? This isn't depicting the horrors of war. If you want to see that go rent Platoon, Casualties of War or even more similarly, Gladiator. That's war. This movie is just using war as an excuse to give us cool images and even cooler looking videogame style deaths. It isn't glamorizing violence, but rather going one step further and actually eroticizing it. It's "War Porn."
I didn't see this movie in the theater (where it likely works better), but I have an image of a bunch of guys leaving the theater after seeing it, going to the bar across the street to get completely hammered as they discuss their favorite death scenes. After a final round one of them smashes the beer glass against his skull and screams: "LET"S SEE IT AGAIN!" This movie was made to invoke that kind of testosterone-fueled reaction and no one can deny it's succeeded. I regret that this review makes it sound like I hate the film because I actually don't. I'm just very disappointed. I'm giving this film two stars even though it's likely the highest two stars I can ever recall giving a film since I was entertained for the most part and think everyone else will enjoy it even more. But I can't endorse a film that should been so much more with the tools it had at its disposal.
This could have been mentioned alongside Spartacus and Ben-Hur as one of the great sword and sandal epics. There was that much potential in the story. Instead, the filmmakers decided it would be a better idea to make a cool looking special effects extravaganza. As that, it's a success, but on just about every other level it fails. As a visual achievement 300 cannot be sold short and Snyder is a talented director who I can tell has a great film in him. He just needs the story to back him up. Up next for him is another comic adaptation, of Alan Moore's legendary 80's graphic novel, Watchmen. If that project contains anything slightly resembling a story, it almost has to be better than this.