Miller's '300' leaves out the romance for a warrior epic

Category: 300 Reviews | Posted by: stagewomanjen
Article Date: March 16, 2007 | Publication: The Maneater | Author: Dan Moore
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The film “300” seems completely out of step with our distinguished, modern tastes. It’s a Heston-esque sword-and-sandals epic with all of the emotional subtlety of a John Wayne movie. There are good guys and bad guys, and fighting is always the answer. There is no romantic interlude, no empathy for the enemies and no attempts at allegory. It hasn’t been focus-grouped, and it’s far from being a date movie. It seems composed mainly of all the testosterone that has leaked out of war movies during the last 30 years.

There’s no reason to assume it would be a major success, which is why it should come as a surprise that it opened to $71 million. Nobody knows what the audience wants more than the audience, and “300,” one of the most deftly constructed action movies to come along in years, appears to hit exactly the spot Hollywood’s been missing.

Based on the Frank Miller comic of the same name, “300” loosely adapts the battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 well-trained Spartans delayed the advance of a massive, disorganized Persian army.

Director Zack Snyder hews closely to the look of the comic, a formula established by the earlier Miller adaptation “Sin City.” “300” was filmed almost entirely in front of blue screens, and like “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” the first major movie to use the technique, the result is a stylized setting that falls intentionally short of photorealism. By making use of the fantastic — the Persian army is filled with every sort of monster and freak imaginable in the grand tradition of ancient kings collecting weird crap — and leaving the massive battlefields barren and muted, Snyder does a better job of illustrating the strangeness of the ancient world than he could have shooting on location.

But occasionally the comic is followed too closely. The constant narration doesn’t translate well to the screen, and the dialogue sounds a little wooden. Eventually, though, the movie hurdles into one incredible battle sequence after another, and it ceases to matter that Spartan King Leonidas sounds too stagey or the evil councilman too evil. The movie hits war movie conventions with such brilliance and frequency that the characters’ war movie speech seems clichéd because we expect, even want, nothing else.

The movie’s gory battle sequences are as stunning as promised. “300” bucks the trend of gritty handheld-camera shots and quick-cuts and instead pans out wide to display massive armies and tightly knit Spartan phalanxes. The camerawork is smooth, unflinching and only moves from a fight when somebody’s been properly disemboweled. Persians swarm on the hills like ants and the special effects are perfect additions.

The film’s only major missteps lie squarely at the feet of the sound department. Most of the movie receives a soundtrack suitable for its throwback setting and the grandeur of its battle scenes. Occasionally, though, the brass dies out and is replaced by a howling, amelodic, guitar squeal that goes on without any direction for the duration of some scenes. Unless your visualization of the battle of Thermopylae has always included the ghost of Jimi Hendrix playing Army-recruitment-commercial power chords over and over, you’ll be snapped right out of the mood the rest of the movie so effortlessly casts.

But that is nitpicking. Some people will deride this movie for being out of touch with modern views of war or lacking an emotional center beyond the Spartans’ desire for self-government. Those people probably enjoyed “Crash,” so I beg you not to listen to them. This is the Platonic-ideal movie Hollywood has always been able to do better than anybody else. It is a massive spectacle, worried about entertaining rather than doling out self-satisfied moral correctives and about awing rather than condescending, and we should encourage it.