Strike a Pose

Salt Lake City Weekly | March 6, 2007
Here’s the thing about shallow exercises in style: They’ve gotten an unnecessarily bad rap. Perhaps out of some misguided attempt to distance themselves from breathless fan-boy proclamations about what’s “kewl,” critics as a mass seem to have grown incapable of recognizing when something succeeds on a purely surface level. And this is why we end up with writers tying themselves in knots trying to explain how Pan’s Labyrinth serves as a metaphor for fascism, rather than appreciating the simple pleasures of a dude with eyeballs in his palms.

Sin City—the 2005 film interpretation of the Frank Miller graphic novel series by Miller and co-director Robert Rodriguez—offered absolutely nothing of redeeming social value. It was an experiment in re-creating the language of panel-art literature for the screen, and a lot of the time it was pretty freaking awesome. Director Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Miller’s 1998 comics series 300 cribs much of the same sensibility, yet it also appears to be trying way too hard to be about something—and ends up letting pretentiousness smother it’s cool.

Miller took as his starting point the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, when an invading Persian army led by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) threatened Greece with enslavement. Leonidas (Gerard Butler), king of the battle-tested Spartans, wants to lead his army to head off the assault, but an oracle’s proclamation—“encouraged” by a collaborating Spartan politician named Theron (Dominic West)—forbids him from taking the entire force. Instead, he leads a mere 300 men to a narrow mountain pass near the Persian staging area, where—joined by another small band of troops from the neighboring Arcadians—he plans to use the restrictive terrain to negate the Persians’ massive manpower advantage.

With Frank Miller serving as executive producer, Snyder clearly embraces the Sin City blueprint for satisfying the comic-book audience base. The color palate becomes part of the film’s personality, with Sin City's black-and-white scheme replaced by an omnipresent bronze tint. Actors are set against backgrounds largely created by computers, lending every scene a surreal quality; grotesque characters like the tragic, traitorous hunchback Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) are vividly realized. And most significantly, shots from the film are set up to mimic Miller’s drawings almost down to the last brushstroke. Turn the individual panels from the graphic novels into a flip-book, and you’d have something that looks a whole lot like this movie.

That’s all well and good to the extent that it makes 300 a fairly distinctive viewing experience. Yet there’s also a strangely static quality Snyder’s direction, as he stop-starts his way through the epic battle sequences so that individual sword thrusts and decapitations can become stand-alone tableaux. Individual shots begin to take on the quality not of cinematic mise-en-scène, but of museum dioramas complete with a just-so flourish of the cape. There are moments when Butler as Lenoidas sets his sculpted beard in such a firm profile that it looks like he’s posing for an image on a coin.

And unfortunately, that sense of striking a pose carries over to 300’s thematic thrust. The script—adapted by Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon—finds our narrator Dilios (David Wenham) and other characters engaging in a mess of speechifying about the significance of the Spartans’ valiant sacrifice. They’re defending free men everywhere, we hear with an almost clockwork regularity; “Freedom isn’t free,” Leonidas’ queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) solemnly pronounces, unwittingly evoking the kind of jingoism mocked by song lyrics in Team America: World Police. When we get a glimpse of Xerxes’ court as a chamber of writhing pleasures—including *gasp* women kissing women—it becomes hard not to read 300 as a rallying cry for supporting the valiant warriors who protect us from decadent invasive influences.

But even though it starts to feel a little bit like Defending the Troop Surge: The Motion Picture, it’s not the specific nature of 300’s politics that proves problematic. Any kind of message-mongering would start to feel ridiculous in a movie that makes sure we get a slow-motion angle on a severed head flying through the air. As nifty as 300 looks at times, it starts to feel smugly convinced that it has something important to say, something for Snyder to talk about on the DVD commentary besides the digitized blood spatters. An exercise in style shouldn’t have to feel like this much work.


**1/2 (two and a half stars out of four)

Starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West.

Directed by Zack Snyder.

Rated R.

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