The first few moments of 300 are filled with an all-encompassing sense of the bombastic, an all-too clear hint of what’s to come next. Company logos, redesigned to appear carved out of ancient rock, roar onto the screen only to be swallowed up by smog clouds, and when the title appears, watch out. The digits slice across the screen with the sickening speed of a serial killer’s blade, colored splatter-red and twenty feet high. With so much drama rooted firmly in production design in these opening credits, how can the rest of the movie possibly keep its own momentum? The answer is that, while it does for a hearty stretch, eventually the film just bottoms out from sheer exhaustion.
I won’t bother recapping the history of this film, mainly because I’ve read more than enough reviews and articles to know it’s based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel. It is one I haven’t read mainly because I’ve never been much of a comic enthusiast, but the story is certainly great fodder for an action epic of any medium. A band of scrappy Spartans against the dominating forces of Persia, a story of daring and the need to defend principles no matter what the cost? Sounds like a pitch just waiting to be approved, even if large-scale period epics haven’t done too well in the recent past. And 300 has more than proven its dominance at the box-office, but does it prove memorable beyond the dark theatre and crowds of enthusiastic fans?
To make the final call you have to ask yourself if you need more from an action film than two solid hours of nonstop, sweat-charged battle. Would you be distracted by scenes that interrupt this action, eager to get back to the blood and guts, or might you instead find yourself wanting to watch these scenes in search of character development and cultural context? Frankly I think it’s obvious that the film needs such elements, since violence, no matter how you redress it via various camera tricks or styles, can get pretty old pretty darn fast. So when director Zack Snyder leaves the war zone to focus on the city of Sparta and its people, I was thankful for the break.
Unfortunately, these scenes do not provide either development of character or any other sort of additional insight. They’re riddled with clichés, from the paralyzed council of elders to the wicked, facial-hair sporting villain who takes advantage of Sparta’s queen while her husband is away slicin’ up some Persians. You know something is drastically awry when the queen delivers an impassioned call-to-arms speech (itself a tiresome moment we can only hope to get through awake) only to be silenced by the dreaded Slow Clap. Oh yes, that sarcastic form of applause delivered only by the most wicked of men. It’s a laughable moment, and afterwards the movie loses all credibility.
Not that I found everything to be silly or disposable, mind you. At first the great standoff between Sparta and Persia has palpable tension, and you’re taken in by the sheer fire and rage shown by the 300 soldiers and their blindly patriotic leader. But then the bad rock music kicks in, and you realize the slow-motion effect has been used sixty times in the last five minutes. Then matters get truly ridiculous when the king of Persia himself is revealed to be an effete egomaniac wearing lip gloss and enough gold jewelry to put Mr. T to shame. Indeed, the whole movie turns into a “men versus sissies” exercise, and it was more than a little off-putting. I’m all for a testosterone-charged evening at the cinema, but c’mon, at a certain point you have to question the intent behind the piece. Frat boys may not give a damn, but for us thinkers, 300 ends up being a bore.