Strange world of Sparta is not for the meek

Category: 300 Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: March 9, 2007 | Publication: THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE | Author: Mick LaSalle
Publication/Article Link:http://www.sfgate.com/chronicle/

RATING: (POLITE APPLAUSE)

300: Action drama. Starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey and Dominic West. Directed by Zack Snyder. (R. 117 minutes. At Bay Area theaters. See complete movie listings and show times, and buy tickets for select theaters, at sfgate.com/movies.)

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In 480 B.C., 300 Spartans faced thousands of invading Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae. That's the subject of "300," and as with all movies set in the distant past, it presents a double and seemingly contradictory challenge to the filmmakers: to make history vital and immediate to a modern audience, while conveying the strangeness of it all, the cultural distance from us and the enormous gulf of time between then and now.

Most filmmakers are happy to fulfill only the first challenge -- to make the story relevant, or at least accessible. But the makers of "300," basing their film on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, take the second challenge seriously. They take pains to show the strangeness of Sparta, at least from our perspective -- its brutality, its fanatical obsession with warfare and its code of manhood. The movie thrusts us into this bizarre warlike culture and then, just as we're beginning to get our balance, it surprises us by quickly establishing that these, in fact, are the good guys. The invading Persians are even worse -- mystical, cruel and autocratic, with no proto-democratic traditions.

The hairstyles and manners of dress aren't softened for our benefit but are presented with accuracy, with all their jutting beards and braids. If you've ever seen an exhibition of ancient statuary, "300" is like watching marble turn to flesh and blood, and the effect is fascinating. There are probably as many six-pack abs on the men here as you'll find on the statues in Rome's Capitoline Museums. It's worth noting, incidentally, that those sculpted bodies make this one of the great beefcake extravaganzas of 2007.

Watching "300," there's the arresting sense of eavesdropping on another time. Things happen that make little sense to us, in terms of our own practices. For example, when King Leonidas -- the commanding Gerard Butler - gets annoyed at a Persian messenger, he kills him and his entire retinue. I particularly like the little grace note: Before he does it, he steals a glance at his wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who nods. We think the nod means "Spare them." It means quite the opposite. This is our welcome to Sparta. The movie is letting us know that we've never been to a place like this.

Yet for all the film's fidelity to matters of style and culture, director Zack Snyder doesn't offer us a realistic treatment but something more adventurous and intuitive. The colors are exaggerated, sometimes underexposed, sometimes overexposed, sometimes excessively red, sometimes excessively blue. The battle scenes call to mind the film's graphic-novel origins, so that blood never flows like real blood but bursts out in discrete pieces, like rose petals.

Significantly, this hyper-stylization of "300" is limited to its visuals. The performances are played straight, and this combination -- straight performances and stylized visuals -- produces an uncanny effect. It's as if the movie is reminding us we're not seeing history as it truly appeared, even if this is history as it happened. We're getting it through the gauze of memory, or legend.

This layer of distance, achieved visually, works in many ways. For one thing, it allows viewers to witness the butchery of ancient combat -- the severed arms, legs and heads -- without having to wallow in buckets of gore. It also allows the filmmakers to show these things without worrying about revolting the audience. But this extra distance works in more subtle, emotional ways as well. Because we can never forget we're seeing something foreign to our world -- because we don't get lulled, in the usual movie way, into fusing our reality with that of the characters -- it's easier to take the characters and their behavior on their terms. The distance also creates an underlying sadness. This may be a boisterous movie, lively and full of action, but the director never lets us forget that we're seeing something gone and almost lost to time.

You'll notice we're at the end of the review and with little said about the story or the actors. Actually, you know everything you need to know about the story - 300 soldiers versus tens of thousands - and in a movie such as this, the acting takes a backseat both to narrative drive and to the vistas of stone and hard flesh, like something out of a Frank Frazetta painting. However, Butler must be singled out for praise. He played Beowulf recently ("Beowulf & Grendel") and didn't fare nearly as well, having to share a girlfriend with an 8-foot monster. Here, working with material worthy of him, he enters into the ancient psychology of the role and comes back every inch a king.

-- Advisory: Severed limbs, stylized blood, lots of violence, nudity, simulated Spartan sex.