It’s vainly pompous, vehemently preposterous, violently propelled by power guitar riffs, and vaguely homoerotic in its bare-chested macho posturing. It’s also frequently peaks with bombastic bursts of absurd genius. If you didn’t already know what I was talking about you might think it had something to do with a classic Queen or Judas Priest concert and not a cinematic retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae.
300 is a highly stylized telling, filtered through the creative mind of Frank Miller, upon whose graphic novel of the same name provided the chief inspiration. Writer-director Zack Snyder went to great pains to recreate Miller’s work on screen at least as much as Robert Rodriguez did with Miller’s SIN CITY, if not more so.
Although set in ancient Greece, the entire film was shot on an indoor set in Montreal. “Spartan” set design, green screens and liberal use of post-production digital rendering paints a semi-surreal backdrop for what amounts to nearly two hours of blood-soaked violence, screaming heroics from finely sculpted he-men and some of the finest battle choreography ever to have graced a Hollywood movie. With the exception of the sexual overtones that ranges from a night of hot passion between Lena Headey and Gerard Butler to an androgynous-like Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) suggestively reaching out to his enemy in more ways than one, I believe that filmmaker Chang Cheh, the originator of the stylized, heroic bloodshed martial arts movie, would have approved of 300 were he alive today.
The film focuses almost exclusively on a last-stand battle where 300 of Sparta’s finest professional soldiers under the leadership of their king Leonidas (Butler) and briefly bolstered by a contingent of citizen soldiers from other Greek states held off the advance of a Persian invasion force of multinationals over 200,000 strong and led by the world-conquering “god-king” Xerxes. The only way this was even possible was that Xerses’ army had to pass on foot through a very narrow strip of coastal land known as the “Hot Gates.” Using the terrain to their advantage, it was Leonidas’ plan to stall the Persians long enough for the slow-to-act Greek states to rally a defense force capable of repelling the invaders once they broke through the choke point. Thus, the battle was a suicide mission for the Spartans, but provided one of the greatest heroic bloodshed tales of all time.
Leonidas’ wife Gorgo (Headey) plays a far larger role than in the graphic novel, not only to give female audiences someone to relate to and hetero male audiences someone to ogle over, but also to provide some respite from the intense action that takes up most of the running time. While her husband is off fighting, Gorgo struggles to keep the ambitious Theron (Dominic West) from usurping the throne and to convince the people to stand up and defend themselves. But despite a noble effort by Headey, these scenes are rather weak and provide a poor bedfellow to the action.
At least Headey and most of the cast manage to make the most of the comic book-inspired script during the dramatic lulls. I cannot say the same for LORD OF THE RINGS star David Wenham. I like the guy as an actor and thought he did a great job of portraying a tortured Faramir in THE TWO TOWERS and RETURN OF THE KING. In 300 he’s given a key role as the lone Spartan survivor who must spread the tale of his comrades’ valor and sacrifice. His “impassioned” dialogue scenes miss the mark though and only highlight the shortcomings a script that’s strung together by stand-alone action sequences and simple, idealized rhetoric about fighting for freedom and whatnot.
Oh, but what joy there is to be had in the fight scenes. Snyder’s surprisingly good DAWN OF THE DEAD remake displayed aptitude for filming action scenes, but I never would have guessed how complete and daring his vision for ancient battle sequences could be. Spartan warriors with spear, sword and shield plow through thick clusters of their enemy with ferocious elegance and intricate clarity. Fighters strike with purpose and efficiency as one would expect of world-class soldiers, yet also with the exaggerated flair of cutting-edge genre action.
The fight choreography of Damon Caro and Chad Stahelski is stunning in the same way that Yuen Wo-ping tore it up in IRON MONKEY and William Hobbs delivered in ROB ROY. What sets the combat in this film apart from most other examples, with the exception of a number of kung fu movies that rely on formation fighting, is the coordination between Spartan warriors. This was a hallmark of Sparta’s martial training. Their shields were used not primarily to protect themselves, but the man standing next to them. They would form tight phalanxes and work in concert, advancing and withdrawing together. In the film, this fighting philosophy is clearly stated in speech and in execution. Formations take the Persians head on and in a couple phenomenal sequences, pairs of Spartan warriors fight almost as an extension of a single body.
Larry Fong’s cinematography and William Hoy’s editing draw the best out of these battle sequences. The camera meticulously pans around fighters to emphasize the need of Spartan warriors to rely on each other to cover every point of attack. Stuttering slow motion is used liberally and I would normally decry such a cliched technique, which had become a farce in the likes of the MATRIX sequels. But it has an important purpose here that goes beyond making the action look cool. As example, in one brilliant sequence, the camera periodically slows to show the piercing advance of a Spartan warrior through the broken ranks of the enemy. Each pause highlights a death-dealing strike or deflection in a chained series of fluid movements with zero wasted movement. Snyder could have shown this is real-time with only slight undercranking as is standard in many action movies, but due to the complexity of the sequence the viewer would have missed seeing the full measure of Spartan efficiency, or at least the filmmakers’ conception of it. Then again, it would have been nice to see at least one of these sequences in relative real-time as contrast.
Part of what sells these scenes is the highly stylized gore on display. I have to go back to the films of Chang Cheh and ’70s-era chambara as reference. Not since the days of THE HEROIC ONES or LONE WOLF AND CUB have I seen such giddy delight in showing a picturesque representation of bodily destruction through combat. Heads are cleanly sheared off with meaty bits shown, chests are pierced like steak knives through a rare top sirloin and blood sprays trail behind slashing strokes of the sword. This isn’t SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or BRAVEHEART where death and war is ugly and its effects obscene and uncomfortable. This is death and war as ancient poets might have imagined it, glorious and provocative.
There is a balanced symmetry with this lusty, Robert E. Howard-esque tone that carries over to the chiseled and crimson-cloaked Spartan heroes with their endless zeal for battle, their tight bonds of brotherhood and their stinging verbal barbs directed at their foes. In contrast, the enemy is portrayed as decadent, overconfident, inbred, and monstrous. Having conquered vast portions of the known world, Xerxes unleashes an exotic and frightening circus of oddball freaks including a troll-like giant, a berserker rhinoceros and an honor guard of masked and malformed warriors rumored to be immortal.
Some critics have suggested that this unfavorable representation of Middle Eastern and Asiatic cultures is connected to the current rift between predominately Christian and Muslim cultures today. It could definitely be interpreted that way. It could also be interpreted as nothing more than the age-old storytelling device of accentuating the evil of antagonists by showing them filtered through the perspective of the heroes.
As much as I enjoyed the battle scenes and thus the movie in general, I do feel some refinement could have been made, mostly with regard to the sound and the environment. Perhaps in an effort to recreate the look of Miller’s artwork, the environment looks excessively dreary and a little too much like a set, rather than a real-world location. I recently watched some of the bonus material on the extended DVD release of Peter Jackson’s THE TWO TOWERS and was reminded of how well that film blended computer imagery, set props and actual locations, admittedly on a larger budget.
I don’t know if it was just the theater I was in when I saw 300, but the sound effects during pitched battles left my ears practically bleeding. It reminded me of the deafening sound of roaring dinosaurs when I first saw JURASSIC PARK in a THX-certified theater. It was during these scenes in 300 that I began to feel like the director was aiming some of those Spartan spears at my head.
As for Tyler Bates’ score, it hit its lowest point whenever it frequently mimics Hans Zimmer’s awful exotic vocal scoring heard in GLADIATOR and BLACK HAWK DOWN. However, it peaks when it briefly breaks out the electric guitars. This is a movie that demands such musical bravado. Give us more wailing guitars and more cow bell.
There is no doubt in my mind that Zack Snyder has set a new standard for period action movies, at least the kind that fall squarely into genre territory. I am also impressed with the verve of Snyder’s vision, his willingness to push the envelope with regard to mature content. He reportedly had to fight to keep the level of violence where it is. Violent horror films have made a comeback in recent years and it stands to reason that violent action movies do the same. I do wish that Snyder had taken a slightly less serious tone by replacing the morose music and dull speechmaking with something more in keeping with the spirit a Quentin Tarantino pic. Beyond that however, 300 is a powerhouse actioner that flies by with truly kick-ass screen fighting and we could always use more of that.REVIEW: 300 (2006),
300 (2006) • Chad Stahelski • Damon Caro • Frank Miller • sword and sandal