Tuesday, March 13, 2007



As a child, Frank Miller saw Rudolph Mate’s The 300 Spartans and something flared in his mind. Years later, after establishing himself in the world of comics by authoring landmark tales for popular characters like Marvel’s Daredevil and DC’s Batman, he wrote and drew his own dramatization of the battle of Thermopylae, 300, for Dark Horse Comics (who also have Mike Mignola’s Hellboy in their stables).
7 years after the 300 hardcover compilation won the Eisner* for Best Publication Design, Zack Snyder’s burly and ballsy adaptation charges onto film screens the world over.

300 is the spare and lean tale of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, from Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera) and his band of battle-hungry Spartans mounting a fierce resistance against the hordes of the invading Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, currently seen loitering around the island in Lost), Persian warlord, self-styled god-king, and avant-garde fashion template.
And even as Leo and his loyal warriors decapitate and dismember the enemy, the unfortunately named Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey, seen in Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, and soon in TV’s The Sarah Connor Chronicles) attempts to rally troops for her husband, who has gone against the will of the council in defying Xerxes and his United Colors of Benetton army.

Though ultimately uneven, 300 works best when the fusion of green screen, slow motion, digital effects, and testosterone deliver scenes of carnage the likes of which have never been seen in the sand-and-sandals epics of the past.
Brad Pitt’s Achilles? Russell Crowe’s Maximus? Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus? Light weight wimps, one and all. Three seconds with any single member of Leo’s Spartan band would reduce these would-be he-men into quivering lumps of jello.

Given Sparta’s culture of violence, it’s only fitting that 300’s battle scenes are terribly effective, getting a lot of mileage from the stylized look Snyder chooses for the film. It’s like watching a rugby match with swords and spears and bloody body parts flying everywhere.
This is undoubtedly Snyder’s triumph. After giving us the excellent Dawn of the Dead remake, he has followed in the footsteps of Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (incidentally also based on Miller source material)** and entered the halls of today’s breed of heightened, stylized cinema with 300. And in between all the bloodletting, he even manages to achieve moments of dizzying phantasmagoric heights with the oracle sequence, as well as Xerxes’ harem of grotesqueries.
Again, Snyder’s triumph, and things look bright for his planned adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Once, I thought the best man for that job was Terry Gilliam, but Snyder looks like a great horse to bet on at the moment. (And if that single test shot of Rorschach—which can be seen on the 300 trailer on YouTube—is any indication, Snyder’s vision for Watchmen looks mighty tantalizing.)

However, though I do think 300 is a better film experience than Sin City, it still isn’t as pitch perfect as it could have been.
Let’s put aside for the moment the fact that Miller’s source material gleefully batters the skull of history (it is, after all, a “dramatization”) and doesn’t really delve too deeply into Sparta’s culture of violence (this is, after all, not that sort of movie either).
And while the light narrative—also painfully evident in Sin City—is forgivable here, as Snyder’s artificial world is enough of a visual distraction to let that shortcoming pass, what is more difficult to pardon are two key performances that grate and disappoint in equal measure.

David Wenham is Dilios, one of Leo’s men who is chosen to become the tale’s bard, and as such, Wenham is the film’s narrator, and his voice carries us through the film and its key moments. Sadly, there’s something about Wenham’s delivery and his reedy voice that just doesn’t sell the material. Keep in mind, these are words and dialogue that need a certain amount of gravitas in order to sound convincing. But whereas Butler gets it dead-on, Wenham just makes an unconvincing mess of it, which is regrettable, since he made such a fine Faramir in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. His narration is so off-key in some moments, that the words seem redundant and unnecessary, like a caption box in a comic book panel that describes exactly what the art is already showing you.
Another weak link in the performance chain is Rodrigo Santoro, whose performance is just bad and overplayed. Considering the costume and production design teams busted their a$$es to give Xerxes that killer look, and the effects wizards then managed to make him look like an impossibly tall (and painfully pretty) Dennis Rodman on one of his more outlandish fashion days, the least Santoro could have done was give us an acceptable performance. It’s the sort of role where the look could have done a lot of the work, and underplaying might have been the key, but instead, there are these overly melodramatic flourishes that do absolutely nothing to convince me that Santoro can actually act instead of coast by on his good looks. (It’s funny, ‘cause as best I can recall, his performance in Walter Salles’ Abril DespedacadoBehind The Sun—was okay. I’m honestly not sure what’s happened to him since.)

Thankfully, as far as performances go, Butler gives us a sinewy Leonidas crackling with stern, musclebound patriotism, one of those largely physical roles that is solidly backed by the palpable gravity of an actual personality. It isn’t difficult to see why these men are willing to follow Leo to their deaths.
Headey is also noteworthy as the fierce Spartan queen whose love for her husband and their martial way of life infuses all aspects of her demeanor and performance. This isn’t some quivering trophy wife pining away in her chambers for her husband who is off to war. Gorgo can open that can of whoop-a$$ with the best of them. (And with a name like that, is it any surprise?)
This truthful approach to the character and material by both Butler and Headey is so much more convincing and effective than the overplaying of Santoro or the anemic quavering of Wenham, and help in making 300 more than just eye candy.

In the end, 300 may have its share of warts and scars, but it’s clearly a win for Snyder, who is so hot a property because of this film, it’s not even funny.
I can only hope he does Alan Moore right and doesn’t cast either David Wenham or Rodrigo Santoro as Ozymandias. (Tom Cruise already came and went for the role. I’m almost afraid to ask who’s next.)

It’s also strangely ironic that a film that so openly glorifies a culture of violence will make a ton of money in today’s post 9/11 climate, where we constantly bemoan the volatile social climate we all live in.
Is it any wonder, really, when popular entertainment looks anything like this?

* The Eisner is the comic book equivalent of the Oscar.

** Miller also co-directed Sin City, a credit Rodriguez insisted on, even if it meant quitting the Director’s Guild of America.

Parting shot: 300 amassed a staggering $70.9 million over its opening weekend, and that's just in the US alone...

(Image courtesy of comics2film.com.)

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