Director: Zack Snyder | Cast: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West | Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures | Running Time: 116 min. | MPAA Rating: R
While Sin City used a CGI-created world to amplify the grit and bite of classic noir, 300 uses that same technology to turn a Greek war epic into a pro-wrestling cartoon. Based on Frank Miller’s overblown depiction of The 300 Spartans, this film is a visual feast of farce. There are massive armies of seemingly endless soldiers, far more than I doubt any kingdom would be able to manage for a single battle. The muddy palette of foreboding skies and darkly lit battlefields was probably intended to look gritty but comes off more like a vibrant depiction of a cloudy Sunday in August. And I can’t forget those laughably buff and greased-up muscles, always showcased in battle. Spartans would traditionally wear bulky armor to protect themselves, but maybe those rock-hard abs are as strong as metal.
Credit should be given to director Zack Snyder for nailing the machismo and over-the-top nature of Frank Miller’s material, even if it all comes as goofy and overblown. King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) leads his Spartan empire with a mighty roar, boldly red cape and pecs always present. Everything he does must be extreme, as though he were acting in a Mountain Dew commercial at all times. When a Persian messenger comes to give the word that the Spartans must pay tribute to King Xerxes, Leonidas doesn’t just refuse; he provides a forceful kick to send him down a well. Before this, however, he must draw his sword and declare the film’s most iconic line when the messenger calls this action madness: “Madness? THIS IS SPARTA!” Forget Sparta; this whole world is mad.
Leonidas sets off for a war with Persia, his men donning shields and spears. But no armor or shirts. How else are you supposed to intimidate your enemy with your beefy muscles? Everything in this film must be made big! The 300 Spartans wage war most humongous, building towering walls of corpses for cover and defending themselves from enough arrows to blot out the sun. The violence is brutal and bloody, showcased in slow shots straight out of The Matrix to appreciate all that gooey CGI blood and gore. Every shot is staged artificially to nail the comic book setting, as with the most memorable shot of the Spartans shoving enemy soldiers off a cliff. Every speech by Leonidas is one of shouting and intensity, delivered as though he were a wrestler making a declaration. Only Butler’s booming voice could make a line like “Tonight we dine in hell!” sound inspirational.
It’s pointless to condemn the film for being historically inaccurate and controversial in its portrayals of the political and military actions of Sparta and Persia. I pity those that take such a ridiculous movie so seriously as those that genuinely believe this to be a piece of history. But this is not in defense of the film for being mindless entertainment. It’s far audacious with its overly epic sets, slow-motion battles and cartoonish characters. The height of this absurdity is undoubtedly in the appearance of King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro); his limp wrist, an abundance of gold jewelry and deep voice on such a feminine figure is a laugh riot. It’s hard to take him seriously as the intimidating threat to the Spartans, despite his tall features. Of course, he also has rippling abs.
I was amazed at the response to such a cartoonish film, treated with the same reverence of Braveheart. I used to work in a video store where it was hailed by many male patrons as the manliest of action films. I have to wonder how many of the homoerotic tones went clear over their heads when making such a statement. Maybe they were too distracted by Snyder’s CGI to notice Butler’s buff or Santoro’s queer mannerisms. Whatever the appeal, it has stood firmer over time as a joke, given the repetition of online gags for Butler’s line readings and the parody film Meet the Spartans. But as both those examples proved, 300 was silly enough on its own that no jokes are required; it does an admirable job making fun of itself.