Butchery on a comic scale

Category: 300 Reviews | Posted by: stagewomanjen
Article Date: March 18, 2007 | Publication: The Scotsman | Author: SIOBHAN SYNNOTT
Publication/Article Link:http://living.scotsman.com/film.cfm?id=420442007#new

Thanks to Dragon Slayer for the article!

300 (15) **
Running Time: 117 minutes

ANCIENT beefcake movies have traditionally fallen into two categories: lighter family fables or true epics with the emotional heft of Greek tragedy. Now there's a third category: an anabolic ballet of graphic butchery, beefcake and bombast that draws its images from comic books.

This is 300, a re-telling of the Battle of Thermopylae as written by Frank Miller, the graphic novelist whose Sin City spawned a similar fountain of blood, violence and computer generated backgrounds, which also uses Miller's comic book style with its emphasis on action, shifting frames and live character poses.

In the legendary Battle of Thermopylae, outnumbered Spartans fought a massive Persian army; their self-sacrifice inspired the rest of Greece to unite in defeating their invaders, a remarkable conflict in the history of warfare and nation-building. This is a story of men who love women but love fighting men even more. It's ridiculously violent in a way the Spartans would probably approve of.

With an oiled and buff Gerard Butler leading the charge as the Spartan King Leonides, this pseudo-epic of blood, sweat and spears begins with a rapid introduction to the Spartan circle of life, where unwanted or scrawny infants get thrown off a mountain.

At seven, boys are sent off to Spartan summer camp. Those who survive return as grown men with shaved, buttered chests, enormous muscles and tiny leather loin cloths, which suggests the Spartan regime is much the same as that followed by the Chippendales. As if it was ever in doubt, we are assured that Spartans love battle, usually preceding scenes of creative carnage with manly rah-rah cries of "This is where we die!"

But not all Spartans are as supportive of their king's suicide mission. Sparta's sickly, corrupt priests, bought off by the Persians, consult a half-naked oracular soft porn star who through the medium of lapdancing warns against going to war. As does the court's shifty appeaser Theron (Dominic West), who has a bad case of happy hands when it comes to the gorgeous, diaphanously-dressed Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey).

300 may be marvellous for Miller's fans, who can see his obsessions with damaged men, detailed violence and hardboiled dialogue blown up on to the big screen. However, director Zack Snyder has made this a protracted tale, and while some combat sequences achieve a grim, brutal grandeur - notably an early battle where the Spartans drive a Persian enemy line over a cliff - the battles become repetitive. Every time a Spartan goes in for the kill, the motion speeds up until the moment of dispatch, when the movie shifts into slow-mo, as blood globules spray out for your perusal. There is a limit to how often you can see soldiers beheaded, speared and hacked to death at 33 rpm and still stay involved.

The bravest thing about 300 is probably the acting and Gerard Butler's vigorous performance suits the film's relentless pace, even if his carefully enunciated accent sometimes sounds like Madonna's. In the end, however, he can't do much with dialogue that may as well have been burped out by a Hercules-movie-digesting mainframe. "There is no room for softness in Sparta," he thunders, and blimey, he's right.

The Persians, led by effeminate Xerxes, are pioneers in the art of facial piercing and the Spartans tend to snigger among themselves at the Athenians as "man-lovers", apparently oblivious that they themselves are all dressed up for a night out at Studio 54. Hardly gay camp for nothing, sword-and-sandal epics tend to hover on the brink of self-mockery, and 300, for all its gritty seriousness, embraces both the clichés and the beefcake. The fetishistic regard for the body in battle may be straight from the original text, but the treatment we get of sweaty Spartan torsos is pure Marlene Dietrich, via von Sternberg. On the other hand a heterosexual scene between King and Queen seems a funereal bedroom coupling, despite audience sniggers over such seductive entreaties as: "Your lips should finish what your fingers started." Even that's in slow motion.

IT'S NOT CLEAR why we should root for the eugenicist Spartans in any case. Persia was no democracy, but neither was Sparta and at least the Persians have an equal-opportunity army of black, Asian, and Arab warriors, while the Spartans are a golden-lit vision of waxed Hellenic manhood. And if the film is making a point about these proto-Iranian Persians, who don't want to fight, or the Spartans entering a battle they cannot practically support, 300 has the time but not the skill to explore these complexities and contradictions.

The film's sympathies seem to boil down to numbers: the Persians have vast battalions with additional recruits drawn from a Fellini nightmare that includes ninjas, armed elephants and an angry bald giant. Apparently it's the Spartan warrior ethic of valour and freedom that makes them the good guys here, even though they slaughter everything that moves.

You probably shouldn't think too hard about 300 after it's over. It has spectacle, but unless you love blood and guts as much as a Spartan, Quentin Tarantino or a home-alone teenage boy, you will not be especially gripped.

On release from Thursday