Thursday, October 2, 2008


Imagine the classic Homeric sword and shield epic "Troy" (2004) with Brad Pitt crossed with the contemporary look of the Mickey Rourke/Jessica Alba neo-noir crime thriller "Sin City" (2005), and you'll have a close idea about what "Land of the Dead" director Zack Snyder achieves with limited success in his brawny, blood-splattered blockbuster "300" (** out of ****) with "Dracula 2000" star Gerard Butler. Warner Brothers has racked up another major box office bonanza with their $60-million production of graphic novelist Frank Miller's 1998 comic book about the legendary battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. in Greece between the Spartans and heathen Persians. Talk about art inspiring art, Miller drew his idea for "300" from the more realistic though far less sanguinary 20th Century Fox movie "The 300 Spartans" (1962) that starred Richard Egan as King Leonidas during the heyday of the Italian strong man movies about Hercules, Ulysses, Goliath, Atlas, and Samson. Clocking in at one hour and 57 minutes of mayhem, treachery, and oily-hard abs and pectoral muscles on display, "300" shows what happens when Hollywood rewrites ancient history with mind-blowing computer-generated imagery. Unfortunately for Snyder and co-scenarists Michael B. Gordon and Kurt Johnstad, the spectacle of "300" overwhelms its dramatic intensity and character development.

Not surprisingly, Snyder, Gordon, and Johnstad rely on the time-honored but unimaginative use of narration to bring its attention-deficient teenager audience up to snuff on Fifth century history. We're told that little boys in Sparta were trained from their youth to be fearless warriors. They lived to kill and killed to live. As Leonidas says early in the action: "We Spartans have descended from Hercules himself. Taught never to retreat, never to surrender. Taught that death in the battlefield is the greatest glory he could achieve in his life. Spartans: the finest soldiers the world has ever known." They also did some other things that Snyder and company have shrewdly eliminated that might have appealed to a larger audience but would have netted them an NC-17 rating. Peruse an unexpurgated account about ancient Grecian history and you'll learn the rest of the unfettered story. Once the filmmakers have established a basic knowledge of the setting that takes about a quarter hour, they introduce us to heroic King Leonidas (Scottish actor Gerard Butler of "The Phantom of the Opera") and his beautiful but anorexic Queen Gorgo (British actress Lena Headey of "The Cave") who talk a lot about freedom not being free. Indeed, you can draw some parallels between their dialogue and American quagmire of Iraq and the Middle East at large. Snyder then trots out the evil, wicked villains, the Persians. These guys look either repulsive with their faces draped with chains and numerous piercings or depraved "Shriek" types with misshapen bodies. Xerxes (Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro of TV's "Lost") sends emissaries to warn Leonidas that the Spartans should surrender before his mammoth army of over a million warriors wipe them out and turn their wives and children into slaves. Leonidas with a nod from Gorgo sends the emissary and his bodyguards plunging to their deaths in a deep well. Leonidas follows the Spartan custom of seeking the advice of a group of depraved oracles that reside on mountain-tops and intoxicate teenage girls before they issue their decrees. They warn Leonidas that Sparta is doomed, and our plain-spoken protagonist storms off in contempt and disgust to round up 300 of his best warriors to meet the worst that Persia has to offer. What neither Leonidas and his queen do not know is that a traitor in their midst, Theron (Dominic West of "The Wire") has already accepted bribes from the Persians to lay Sparta open to the Asian horde.

"300" cuts back and forth between the fierce Spartan warriors battling the Persians on the coast of Greece near a narrow mountain pass called 'the Hot Gates' and Queen Gorgo's futile efforts to raise reinforcements to send to her husband's aid. Theron has convinced Spartan leaders that Leonidas has broken the law by taking marching off with his troops without the approval of the politicians. Predictably, like the battle of the Alamo in American history, the Spartans in 300 are whittled down to nothing by a force six times its size.

By and large, "300" falls back on wholesale slaughter as entertainment. We see at least three men get their heads slashed off at the neck as well as numerous shots of arms, legs, and hands being severed. The chief problems in "300" are the fake looking computer generated graphics. The movie was shot on a sound-stage in Montreal using green screens to project all of its fake looking backdrops, especially when the Persian fleet runs into angry seas and many ships sink. Anybody who doesn't know what the green screen or blue screen back projection process looks like should catch a local weather forecast. All those graphics are generated by a computer while the forecaster stands in front of a blank green or blue wall and points to areas that he or she sees on a television monitor. Worse, "300" is so choked with blood and gore that none of the characters, except Leonidas, are lost in the violence. When our heroes aren't killing Persians, they spend the rest of their time finishing off the mutilated survivors and then turn them into walls of flesh to topple on the next wave of Persians. Xerxes makes a spectacular entrance and his first confrontation with Leonidas is dramatic, but afterward he becomes just another cardboard character. Nothing relieves the film from its constant killing. There is nothing remotely humorous here, unlike some of the funnier confrontations in Mel Gibson's "Braveheart." Altogether, "300" looks like a spectacular video-game with half-hearted drama tossed in between the slaughtering. Guys will savor the cutting edge violence while females will ogle the warriors as if these ancient Spartans were nothing more than leather-thonged Chipendale strippers wading into war with swords and shields.

No comments: