8/21/07

R037 300

(2006, Fantasy-Sword & Sandal, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett

These guys must all have freakishly high blood pressure.

Rating: ****

In a nutshell:

A highly stylized version of the Battle of Thermopylae.

Summary:

The restaurants in Hell aren't all that great.Spartan soldier Dilios (David Wenham) narrates the birth of his king, Leonidas. Spared the precipice of birth defects (Spartan population control apparently consists of old men tossing “imperfect” infants from high cliffs), the boy grows and fights and trains until one day his teachers throw him out into the snow to prove himself. He returns clad in the skin of a digital wolf, and is crowned king.

Many years later, Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his unfortunately named wife Gorgo (Lena Headey) greet the Persian ambassador. The arrogant Persian insults Gorgo while he demands tribute; if they refuse, his master’s armies will raze Sparta to the ground. By way of reply, Leonidas throws the ambassador and his contingent into a bottomless pit.

Leonidas knows that the Persians outnumber the Spartans by a ridiculous number, but he has a plan. To reach him, the Persian Emperor Xerxes must thread his troops through a narrow canyon known as the Hot Gates; a small, determined force wedged into the canyon could conceivably hold of the Persians indefinitely. Unfortunately, by law, the oracles must approve his plan before he can put it into action, and the disfigured oracles and their semi-nude teenage girl mediums say no. Leonidas does not know that Persian agents have paid the oracles to say this, but he suspects. With his wife’s blessing, he gathers a bodyguard of three hundred men and heads north to the Hot Gates.

The rest of the movie alternates between Leonidas’ campaign against Xerxes and Gorgo’s attempts to drum up support for her husband’s campaign. At the Hot Gates, Leonidas and his three hundred soldiers defend the canyon from a host of multicultural foes, exotic beasts, and inhuman monsters in an elegantly choreographed orgy of blood. On several occasions, the megalomaniacal Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) offers to let Leonidas keep his kingdom, and even give him command of his armies if he’ll just let the Persians through. On all occasions, Leonidas refuses.

Um, Lena? If I can count ribs, then you need to eat more than bottled water and lettuce.In Sparta, Gorgo struggles with a traitorous politician named Theron, finally agreeing to sleep with him in exchange for his support before the Spartan Council. When the time to meet the council comes, however, Theron announces that she slept with him in an effort to gain his support. (Apparently a double standard applies in that Theron is applauded for his efforts on Sparta’s behalf while Gorgo is shunned as an adulteress.) The scorned Gorgo breaks free of the guards, seizes a sword, and runs her accuser through. His newly sliced purse spills Persian gold, conveniently stamped with the visage of Xerxes himself. The easily swayed Council denounces Theron as a traitor and presumably declares their support for Leonidas.

By this time, however, Leonidas has refused to let a deformed Spartan expatriate join their ranks, resulting in eventual betrayal. The spurned hunchback offers his services to Xerxes, and leads Persian forces over previously unknown paths to encircle the Spartans in the night. Recognizing that his three hundred are doomed, Leonidas sends the wounded Dilios back to Sparta to tell their tale. The next morning, Leonidas kneels before Xerxes. The Persians let down their guard just long enough for the three hundred to make one last charge. Leonidas snatches up his spear in the confusion and hurls it at Xerxes; it slashes the Persian king’s face, but fails to kill its target. Leonidas dies in a rain of arrows fired from the cliff tops.

The narration ends, and we see that Dilios has been telling this story to thousands of Spartan soldiers and tens of thousands more Greeks united by the tale of Leonidas’ sacrifice. The movie ends as the angry Greeks sweep down on the doomed Persians.

Thoughts:

Oh, darling.  Shall we elope?When this movie came out, it was amusing to see so many reviewers attempt to extract some sort of socio-political parallel. “Let’s see,” said the conservative reviewers. “The Spartans represent our valiant United States Armed Forces while the vile Persians represent al Qaeda/Iraqi Insurgents/Taliban Remnants.” (“It’s an insult to the nation of Iran,” Middle Eastern radicals added in a similar vein. “Everyone knows that Iranians are the modern-day Persians.”) (Note to Iranians: No, they don’t. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the vast majority of ethnocentric America thinks that a modern Persian is a kind of long-haired cat.) “No wait,” the liberal reviewers replied. “It’s the other way round! The Persian war machine represents imperialist America, and the Spartans are those plucky Middle Eastern freedom fighters...”

Guys, sometimes a chest-thumping, homoerotic sword and sandal fantasy is just a chest-thumping, homoerotic sword and sandal fantasy.

Actually, 300 reminds me more of an opera than a movie. The lines, for instance, are never merely spoken; they’re declaimed, growled, or shouted. Highlights include such pithy gems as “Come back with your shield or on it!” “This is Sparta!” “Tonight we dine in hell!” and the immortal “For Spartaaaaaa!” (It should be noted that all of the above quotations end with exclamation points for a reason.) The dialog is completely superfluous to the production; the whole thing could have been performed in Italian for all the difference it would have made. As in opera, the plot is not its reason for existence. People go to the opera for the music, not because they enjoy the luridly improbable adventures of high-born young women who dress like men and sleep with their half-brothers before (or during) eventual suicide. Likewise, people who watch 300 will not do so out of educational curiosity (though it is rather vaguely based on a historical event) but because it boasts some of the most breathtakingly filmed violence since Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.

A full complement of the usual MST3K alumni (Mike, Bill, and Kevin) is on hand for the commentary track. When the immense and gaudy Xerxes first appears, Kevin notes, “He looks like Mr. Clean on his way to Mardi Gras.” Regarding the violence, Mike observes that “Persians were known for their tender, squishy physiology,” while Kevin agrees that they seem to “spurt like rain birds.” Bill just sighs and says, “Life moves at such a hectic pace; sometimes you just have to stop and smell the entrails.” Blood is this film’s medium of expression, and its use of ichor is eloquent, elegant, and even delicate. On the other hand, if you’re really going to use blood as your medium of expression, you deserve to be made fun of regardless of how well you use it, and Mike and his cohorts have a lot of fun with the material given them.