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A confused Spartan takes a good look at 300

by Glen Baity

This might cause the administration of my alma mater to revoke my hard-earned diploma, but here’s my guilty admission: For the duration of my time at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I gave virtually no thought to the significance of the school’s mascot, the Spartan.

As you might have gathered, everything I didn’t learn in college, I learned from the movies. So after seeing 300, I feel compelled to ask: What the hell, man?

My trusted source tells me that the events of the film, adapted from the graphic novel by writer/artist Frank Miller and colorist Lynn Varley are probably more than a little exaggerated.

But the disposition of the 300 Spartans who faced down the Persian emperor-god Xerxes and his millions-strong army seems to have at least some basis in fact. Those warriors were bold, brave, belligerent and, incidentally, had plenty of mocking scorn for their neighboring Athenians, who wasted their time on trivial pursuits like art and philosophy.

I’m just saying, it’s an arguably weird mascot for a mid-sized liberal arts college with a killer music program and no football team. That’s all.

This, admittedly, is neither here nor there, but it’s one of the few things about 300 that gave me a moment’s pause, hence its inclusion here. As for the rest of the film, directed by Zack Snyder and co-produced by Miller himself, well, it’s a tad forgettable. King Leonidis (Gerard Butler), his authority challenged by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), plunges his elite force of 300 into a battle for the security and soul of Sparta. The film is entirely that battle, and it’s every bit as bloody as you might imagine. Heads lopped off, arrows and spears piercing toned flesh, bodies piled by the thousand – all your favorites are here, in one convenient package.

And what a pretty package it is. Snyder charged into my good graces in 2004 with his funny, scary and all-around excellent remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Like Robert Rodriguez before him, Snyder is clearly so devoted to Miller’s material that he’s decided to reproduce it in its entirety, and I can’t call that a bad move: With a style as inimitable as Miller’s, there aren’t many improvements to be made.

Unfortunately, the visuals are the film’s lone memorable attribute. The abundant action sequences give a momentary visceral thrill, but really, it’s standard gladiatorial stuff. Snyder applies liberal doses of the slow-mo, often for no apparent reason, which has a cumulative numbing effect. I suspect that if every slow motion scene in this film were sped up to real time, 300 would be about 15 minutes long.

It’s a shame, really, because at that length it could have been far more effective. The film is further bloated with endless speeches concerning valor and glory on the battlefield, delivered with such ham-fisted bombast it’s hard to keep from snickering. Butler turns in a hearty performance as Leonidis, though he’s more an icon than a character.

It’s tempting to say that’s true of everyone present, but in retrospect, most of them are more barrel-chested clichés than icons. There’s the Spartan father who fights alongside his son (will one of them die, leaving the other on a quest for black-hearted vengeance? I wonder); the traitorous Spartan politician who campaigns against the 300; the king’s wounded sidekick, sent away from the suicide mission to tell the glorious tale; and the devoted queen who beats back criticism of Leonidis on the homefront.

This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the comic, or Miller’s masterpiece, Sin City – he gravitates toward larger-than-life characters, and in the latter, at least, that works well. It also works fine for 300 on the page, but this translation is lacking – the story is thin, focusing so intently on the Spartans’ dogged heroism, and any political maneuvering that might have added layers to the story or historical fact that might have spread the credit around is treated as an afterthought. And the violence, though stylized to a degree, is so heavy-handed it chokes off any chance the film could be taken as a simple, fun diversion.

Snyder is a fine young director, but he hasn’t given himself very much to work with here. 300 is as technically accomplished as any film you’ll see this year, but if you’re looking for insight into the heart and soul of a hero, you’ll find almost nothing atop its mountain of carcasses.

Dine in hell with Glen Baity when you send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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