Skip to main content

Spartans never retreat! Spartans never surrender!


300
(2006)

I’ll readily admit to being surprised by the success of 300, but I guess Warner Bros were too; they expected takings more on a par with Sin City. What they got was a bit of a monster, with a total gross approaching half a billion dollars. The common link between the two is Frank Miller, a comic book writer of inclement disposition and extreme right wing leanings; maybe a bit like John Milius without the sense of humour. Or directorial ability (see The Spirit for evidence). I didn’t care much for Sin City, but it was a comic book aficiando’s wet dream. Understandably, as it adopted the visual stylings of the medium that inspired it. Zack Snyder’s film does the same thing, just with added speed-ramping.


Snyder’s an interesting director, not so much in terms of evidencing a powerful intellect but because his films are visually so compelling. He’s like a dimmer version of the Wachowski siblings in that regard (although, arguably, there’s a thin line between intellectual and pretentious, and they teeter on the brink between the two). His Dawn of the Dead remake was a pleasant surprise, particularly during the first act where the sense of danger was ferociously palpable. And I liked Watchmen for the most part, even if it displayed a penchant for gore that distracted from the thematic content (this is why I suggest that he’s hardly cerebral in his instincts). Left to his own devices he “auteured” into existence the wet dream silliness of Sucker Punch. But, quite possibly (likely even, given the trailers), the combination of his distinctive style (much more suited to the comic book medium than his producer) and Christopher Nolan’s resolute braininess will make Man of Steel satisfying nourishment on all levels. We’ll see.


With 300, Snyder weakly argues that he is having his cake. And then attempts to eat it too. Against criticisms of the film’s thrall to the fascistic designs of its heroes, he responds that it is a tale told by an unreliable narrator (David Wenham’s Dillios). It’s an excuse for everything from the fantasy elements, to the vilification of the horrid Persians, to the disgust for anything that does not celebrate the sculpted body-beautiful. Arguing that it is “just a fantasy” about a bunch of guys kicking the shit out of each other doesn’t really let him off the hook for Miller’s overt identification with the city-state and its harsh standards. Nor it does explain some of the inconsistencies (Gerard Butler’s Leonidas isn’t just a cold-blooded killer; rather than disdain Ephialtes the hunchback he treats him respectfully – hardly the sort of image Dillios would be presenting of the King to the troops back home). The subtext is; these are a tough, callous people (except when it comes to showing a hero’s love for a wife or a son, of course) but that’s what you need to be a hero. And you should be in awe of them.


But, at the same time, Snyder has a point. This is a resolutely empty-headed film. Snyder really does stuff because it’s cool, and tries to justify it later (if he’s challenged); it’s why Watchmen (which, as I say, I like) is all about emulating the look of the comic (except where Snyder’s got something “cooler” in mind) but rarely engages fully with its ideas. Here, the characters don’t even qualify as two-dimensional (this might be why Butler is so effective). And the plot amounts to; Leonidas takes 300 of his men off to face King Xerxes because he can’t declare war. They fight. Then fight some more. Then, well, we know what happened to the 300 but I won’t spoil it. There are some lame attempts to create political intrigue at home, which involve Dominic West being an absolute stinker and Lena Headey taking her top off, but these amount to little more than casting about for breathing space between dust-ups. 


While the visual palate Snyder adopts is striking, I have to admit I found it only intermittently engaging. It encourages immersion in a hyperreal fantasy landscape that is as shallow and insubstantial as all the other elements. Where Snyder succeeds is in making it seamless; he has built a self-contained world here, like it or not.


Which makes you wonder why the actors spent so long down the gym (it appears they actually did reconfigure themselves with those bodacious bods, although there’s little doubt that they were shined-up in post); all the better to sell their homoerotic camaraderie? I did wonder if Xerxes was presented as slightly effeminate in order to state to those doubting that, yes, these Spartans are all man.


The treatment of Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) struck me as the most objectionable of the film’s many less-than-salubrious statements. As mentioned, Leonidas shows great empathy with him when he volunteers to fight. Such are his deformities that he would be useless in battle, the King tells him. Ephialtes’ response is to show that weakness of body is a reflection of weakness of moral fibre; off he goes to betray the Spartans. Clearly, then, the Spartans eugenics programme was a laudable one, and Ephialtes’ parents were wrong to save him.


We see similar aberrations on the Persian side (giants with crab arms, slavering giant gimps) and in the oracles Leonidas must defer to at the outset (the Ephors, who are shown to be ethically corrupt and said to be the inbred; it is unclear how the latter is supposed to be the case, as the Spartans provide them with a steady flow of young maidens). Then there is the dismissal of Athenians as “boy-lovers”, which would like to preclude any Spartan inclinations in that direction. Snyder will no doubt claim this is all a consequence of Dillios’ narrative adornments, but this is a filmmaker whose presiding motivation is how air-punching he can make a sequence. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck…


There’s no doubt that Butler gives it his all in the lead role. It’s kept him in starring parts since, but since their quality has been resoundingly dubious (a supporting turn in Coriolanus aside) one wonders whether this was such a blessing. Revisiting the movie, the presence of Michael Fassbender (in his first big screen part) as Stelios is the most significant surprise. He’s okay, but one-note shouting isn’t really using him to the best of his abilities. He also resembles Christopher Lambert in Greystoke; it’s the flowing locks, I think.


The dialogue is a progressively more inane string of clichés that are punchy yet resoundingly hollow (“Give them nothing. But take from them everything!”, “Today, no Spartan dies!” – wait, I thought you all wanted to die, “Tonight, we dine in hell!”). It’s tiresomely bombastic stuff.


The staging is impressive but, like the dialogue, becomes repetitive and wearying; Leonidas’ fight with a giant gimp man is probably the highlight, as it actually produces tension. Most of the mayhem is well-choreographed but uninvolving.


You come away from the film knowing bollocks-all about Sparta, aside from the a pre-amble about how the children are brought up as soldiers; more resonant are their rallying grunts, making them sound like a team of American footballers. The shame of it is, Michael Mann was planning a film about this subject for years (Gates of Fire) that undoubtedly would have had engaged with the subject with it’s own unique style and actually shown some insights into the Spartan people and the Battle of Thermopylae. There’s no hope for it now, alas, Meanwhile, an optimistic Warner Bros has opted for that least auspicious of follow-ups; a prequel.

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

So the devil's child will rise from the world of politics.

The Omen (1976) (SPOILERS) The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation , or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen . That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist .

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.