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Archive for Friday, March 9, 2007

Comic book-styled ‘300’ a macho epic

March 9, 2007

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Movie
300 **

This high-octane, macho version of the Battle of Thermopylae is based on Frank Miller's graphic novel, so a certain amount of uber-violence is a given. Outmatched by thousands, a bloodthirsty king leads 300 super-buff Spartans sporting bikini briefs and capes into battle. Without any emotional attachment, though, "300" is a bombastic and cold affair, not unlike watching a video game.

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In the cinema, there have always been "films" and "movies." One speaks to art, the other to pure lost-in-the-popcorn-moment excitement.

To that latter list, add "300," a movie movie, a full-blooded, testosterone-spiked shot glass that you down in one ferocious sitting. It's epic and thrilling and arty, in that childish-macho-"Sin City" fashion, a "Gladiator" for the comic-book set.

Sure, the crowd booed this ferocious, manlier-than-manly "original" Persian War movie at the Berlin Film Festival last month. The pansies.

Maybe they were reacting to the archetypes, to "300's" clash-of-civilizations as an allegory for America's confrontation with the modern Middle East. A newfangled old-fashioned movie about glory, honor, sacrifice and a martial code that crosses into fascism, homoerotic and homophobic at the same time - there are plenty of turn-off buttons in this one.

But by Zeus, this is a ripping yarn, told with limb-rending gusto, an iconic ancient battle as seen by an iconic comic book creator, Frank Miller.

A terrific prologue tells us of Spartan ways, the eugenics, the smack-boys-around-till-they're-tough training. And an epilogue fills in some of the context, and what the 300 achieved.

It's based on a series of Miller comics inspired by the 1962 film "The 300 Spartans," so it's history, several times removed. But it is true to the legend, even quoting the famous ancient one-liners, and that's what counts here.

In 480 B.C., Xerxes is master of the universe, or at least the known (Western) world. The Persian God King rounds up a hundred nations and an army of hundreds of thousands and sets out to avenge his father's defeat at the hands of those upstart democrats, the Greeks. Would the Greeks submit to his rule?

While other Greek states dithered, Athens threw down. And when King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler) hears what the "boy-lovers" of Athens have said, he knows what he must do - be a Spartan.

But his government of religious fanatics, and their creepy oracles, won't let him commit troops during their big festival. So Leonidas marches north with 300 "personal" body guards, to help Greece hold the one choke point where the Persian host will be irrelevant - "The Hot Gates," Thermopylae.

There, the Spartans stare down the long spear of Asia, "the beast" threatening to devour Western Civ, as we used to call it in college. And there, according to the historian Herodotus, they invented trash talk.

"Throw down your weapons!"

Come and get them.

"Our arrows will blot out the sun!"

Then we will fight in the shade.

Butler, in a career-making performance of Russell Crowe dimensions, roars pretty much every line that isn't pillow talk to his stunning and flinty queen (Lena Headey).

"SPARTANS!" he bellows at his phalanx of hoplites.

"Hoooo," they bellow back, crashing spear to shield.

"THIS is where we fight! THIS is where they die!"

I am sorry, but if that line, spat out on a tinted dreamscape (a digital soundstage) version of an ancient Greek pass, doesn't thrill you to the marrow, you need to have your marrow checked.

It's a tough world of tough talk, where the women are as strong-willed as the men. Sparta's queen, like generations of Spartan wives, hands him his shield and his only command.

"Come back with your shield, or on it."

"Dawn of the Dead" director Zach Snyder, who also co-wrote the script, borrows silly villains from "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Road Warrior" (humongous, chained fighting slaves, armored elephants and rhinos) and hurls them at the "300." He decapitates or impales friend and foe.

As Frank Miller intended, he has the Greeks shirtless, and buff beyond belief. Just think of the gym time! Snyder's Xerxes is a bejeweled, pierced, hairless hulk with stereotypical homosexual tendencies.

Snyder practically invites us to laugh at the macho, the bravado, the cliches, the movie references. But he pulls us back in, reminding us of sacrifice, of the ideals that were at stake.

And Butler, chewing the scenery with a violence that suggests he relished every sit-up, conjures up what Shakespeare's Henry V was talking about when he spoke of those not there for the great battle as men who "shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap."

Don't hold yours cheap. Go, manly movie-lovers, and tell the Spartans that here is a movie worth the popcorn.

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