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300

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/16/07 07:46:02

"It's super, thanks for asking!"
1 stars (Sucks)

“300” looks great. It looks so great, in fact, that you could ignore everything else (not a difficult task at all) and focus entirely on the look of the thing. One wishes there was a way to savor the images one by one, perhaps in book form. If only it were possible to collect illustrations of the images and, by placing them in order, tell a story of some sort. A “graphic novel,” if you will.

But I kid “300,” which was, of course, adapted from a comic book by Frank Miller, the popular artist behind “Sin City.” That comic series was also made into a movie, in which actors read lines in front of a green screen, with all the backgrounds added in later, all in an attempt to make the movie look exactly like the comics, frame for frame. “300,” directed by Zach Snyder, does the exact same thing: chroma key, digital sets, elaborate replica of the printed page.

This is more than merely making a movie look somewhat like a comic book; this technique involves using the original comic as an unbreakable point of reference, developing scene after scene to accurately mimic the original illustrations. What’s curious about this technique is that it has garnered much praise from fanboys who demand point-by-point translation in their movie adaptations, so much so that the sheer movieness of the new work suffers in the process. The director is no longer a visionary, but instead an art student assigned the task of making a careful copy of someone else’s work. The story is not allowed the chance to breathe on its own as a movie; we are merely watching comic panels projected forty feet high.

“Sin City” worked despite these limitations because of the manic energy of the story, and despite my grumblings, I will admit to being wowed by the inventiveness of the concept. “300,” meanwhile, suffers because there’s just no story here to hold up what now comes off as an already tired cinematic gimmick. It’s sloppy seconds. Snyder is a terrific filmmaker - his “Dawn of the Dead” remake was outstanding - which makes the failures of “300” all the more depressing. He’s stuck playing translator for Miller’s creations, while the lousy screenplay corners him into rehashing the dopiest of action movie clichés.

It helps nothing that the movie is also so very, very hilarious. Deliciously, gloriously, unintentionally hilarious. Here we have a movie in which well-oiled hardbodies run around in leather diapers and scream in erotic glee as they penetrate each other with their shaft-like weaponry, and then call it a celebration of hetero manliness. Here is a movie frantic in its attempts to not look like the very parade of gayness it actually is: women writhe around topless, manly emotions are hidden behind militaristic grunts and cheesy macho sloganeering, and, just to make sure we’re all on the same page about this movie Not Being Gay At All, our hero dismisses a rival tribe as a bunch of “boy lovers,” because, you know, the other Greeks were a bunch of faggy wussies, but not the Spartans. Not in this movie.

Yeah, sure. Let’s face it: there’s not a frame in this film that’s not showing off some inadvertent gay euphemism. Our main villain is a drag queen at her most glamorously bitchiest (complete with a fabulous solid gold cod piece). The king spends his nights strutting around naked, pausing to show off his finely-toned ass. Two pretty young studs share on the battlefield the kind of quick-lipped banter worthy of a romantic duo. Phallic symbols abound, as do the parade of musclemen flaunting their greased-up pecs.

Why is this funny? Because the movie is trying so hard to be Not Gay, the merest implication of something even vaguely homoerotic earns massive giggles. Not only has Miller’s story (adapted for the screen by Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, and Michael B. Gordon) intentionally erased all mention of actual Spartan homosexuality, but it then goes out of its way to be pointedly homophobic - the “boy lovers” line, the notion of major villains as womanly, un-macho prissies, the long, spiteful orgy scene where we boo and hiss at the Persians’ sexual deviancy (all the while lingering over shots of lesbians going at it, because dude, lesbian sex is cool). There are tinges of despicable anti-gay sentiments throughout, and let’s face it, few things are as funny as gay bashers who wind up looking extremely gay.

There are, in facts, many scenes - and by “many” I mean “all” - that easily could end with one character offering manual stimulation to another. (“Hand jobs for Spartaaaaa!!!”) Because here in “300” we have one of the most sexualized displays of warfare ever put to film. The men are ripped beyond necessity (even the mutant hunchback has abs of steel!), and the camera loves it, offering slow, lusting shots of them all.

It is porn without the sex. (Actually, it’s gay porn without the gay sex; there are ridiculous amounts of Not Gay At All, Look How Hetero This Is sex throughout.) But what will replace the sex? Violence, of course. You could even call this movie a shiny example of “war porn,” a collection of blood-soaked images designed only to titillate. Sexual penetration is replaced by the ripping of flesh and the removal of limbs. Beheadings come by the bushel. All to arouse, all without consequences.

Ah, yes, those pesky consequences. “300” is meant to be an action extravaganza, all killer and no filler, yet it still falls into that classic action movie trap: we cheer as bad guys are slaughtered by the thousands, yet are asked to weep for the one or two heroes who don’t make it out alive. It’s a problem that admittedly has shaken even the best of movies, but here, in a film whose lone point is to witness death and mayhem on such a massive scale, it’s ridiculous.

Yet it fits perfectly with the rah-rah mentality that also permeates throughout. The screenplay punctuates is battle sequences with catchphrases straight out of a recruitment film, with soldiers shouting meaningless phrases about freedom and liberty and justice, and when words fail them, a simple “hoo-rah” will suffice. The silliest of these comes when our heroes toss out that most shallow of all bumper stickerisms: “Freedom isn’t free!!” To think that thousands of years ago, ancient soldiers were waging war to the tune of an absurd George W. one-liner.

It’s tempting to find a metaphor for our own present-day war in this tale, but “300” isn’t deep enough a movie to demand such study. It is, as Snyder himself has freely admitted, an action flick that plays fast and loose with historical accuracy just so it can “look cool.” And that’s fine - nobody should be coming to this thing expecting a history lesson, just as nobody should be reading “Hagar the Horrible” to bone up on that final exam that’s coming up. Still, Snyder’s comments reveal a flaw in the movie: it’s so concerned about looking cool that it refuses to bother with interesting, or even entertaining, storytelling. The actual plot (the legendary tale of the warrior king who led three hundred Spartans in defending their land from thousands of Persians) is so flimsy it could be used as one of the see-through gowns the ladies wear in this picture. Characters are even fluffier, with everyone who is not the king or queen relegated to being viewed by the audience as “that one guy” and “the guy with the beard” and “that other guy.”

Which is funny, because the screenplay really, really, really wants to be an important part of the overall project, instead of just being the random excuses for the action. It fails. A conspiracy-back-home subplot is as hilarious as it is worthless. The queen-holds-her-own subplot is a weak attempt to apologize for earlier scenes of complete misogyny (the best thing the script has to say about women is that they are only good because they provide wombs for future men). The long speeches about honor and sacrifice and duty are so poorly written that you feel a little sorry for David Wenham, who’s suckered into reciting such words. (Gerard Butler, as the king, is the lucky one: he just has to mumble some crap about freedom, then stab somebody. Lather, rinse, repeat.)

OK, even for all this, even if we take out the crazy homoerotic homophobia and the hollow sloganeering and the lousy scripting, surely a movie this amped up on pure adrenalin can provide wicked awesome action thrills, right? Sadly, “300” can’t even get that right. For a movie that is essentially one gigantic fightfest, it’s ridiculously boring. Snyder is so locked into Miller’s imagery that the most he can open up the action is to throw us the old slo-mo/not-slo-mo/slo-mo trick. Blood spatters and swords clank, but not once is there any heft to the proceedings. You never feel the thud. And by the one-hour mark (this blasted thing drags on for two), you’re so numb by so much violence that the impact is completely gone - these villains, these hordes of bodies, don’t seem like anything anymore, just randomly shaped blobs of matter that our hero army can slice and dice ad nauseam.

On the other hand, that gold cod piece was sooo to die for.

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