Saturday, March 10, 2007

Review: 300 (AKA Beefcake-orama)

In our unending quest to see just about every comics-based film that comes out, we headed off yesterday afternoon to the see Zack Snyder's 300, based on the comic by Frank "Sin City" Miller and Lynn "Colorist Extraordinaire" Varley. It's received some scathing reviews, like A. O. Scott's which called it "as violent as Apocalypto and twice as stupid," but given the NYTimes scorn for anything not mimetic we didn't really take it all that seriously.

The central story takes place at the battle of Thermopylae, where the titular 300 Spartans face the massive army of Persia headed by self-proclaimed god, Xerxes (played with great vigor and costume by Rodrigo Santoro). The king of Sparta, Leonidas, becomes our focus with an introductory tale of his childhood path to warrior and king, and of course, eventually to become Gerard Butler, last seen as a terrific Beowulf in a very silly film. While it's a bit distracting to have a Scottish Spartan, it becomes less odd when he's joined by Welsh and Australian Spartans, notably the effective Vincent Regan, as his fiercely proud Captain, and the lovely David Wenham as guttural narrator, Blinky, er, Dilios. Lena Heady gets more of a part in the film than the comic as the tough but lovely Queen Gorgo (no, not that Gorgo).

Yes, we have nipples a-plenty with the few female figures (so to speak) in the film; but most of the film is a paen to the male figure -- oh, and the glory of combat fueled by honor. In a nutshell, fighting for freedom good, slavery bad. But that's just one aim -- what the film achieves is a romanticizing of the battle for freedom against all odds. While in our current climate, this would seem to be a thinly veneered commentary on existing wars (particularly given the racial politics as mostly Caucasian Spartans face an enemy of color and often, apparent disabilities), it really seems to be the artist's cri de couer against those who would subvert his vision, particularly in the case of slimy sell-outs like the oozingly slippery Theron, played by Dominic "Spice World" West.

While Miller clearly wants to glorify the clarity of purpose of the Spartans, there is more to it than that. It's easy to make these kinds of arguments about the past, when all the troubling detail has been stripped away by time. I recall the seemingly endless line of films about World War II and the conquest of the West that played on television while I was a child, all the time the very real Vietnam war ran on the news. I suspect that people were longing for a clarity of purpose missing from the real war at the time, but I also see a clear message of "war is hell" that came across in those films, the terrible loss that they all conveyed -- especially by odd films like Hornet's Nest. There's a romantic notion about the manner of one's death being as important as the manner of one's life, that our craven current culture might be less sanguine about embracing, but 300 really comes across as the declaration of the artist under fire who sees his life as bearing arms against an endless sea of troubles.

All of which may seem a bit heavy handed for a film that's really about shiny beefcake (sorry, Cheryl, nary a hairy chest to be seen), but I felt a sympathy for this film that doesn't jibe with my inherent pacifism (there's cartoonish violence a plenty, too, which I take with equanimity). While the real star is Butler's well-honed six pack abs (I have to note, though, that I think some of the other actors' abs looked digitally enhanced, especially Wenham's at the end), the struggle of vision and personal truth against the edict to bow down and kneel to the prevailing powers (whether markets or gods) does appeal to me (that and the drum heavy soundtrack).

And then, of course, there's the beefcake! Steve Reeves, eat your heart out.


C. Margery Kempe said...

Hee hee -- always expect the unexpected (and as Lynda Barry sez, when possible BE the unexpected). I find it a bit odd that I enjoyed it, too, but there it is.

Beefcake is certainly part of that! I guess I never really focused on the overt subject as much as the subtexts.

Your point about real violence v. fake is important and often forgotten these days. I find real violence intolerable -- even fictional violence that is meant to be realistic is hard to take (urgh -- see Tideland for a discomforting view of violence and horror.

Cranky Yankee said...

WOW! You gave this a good review! I thought for sure you would hate it.

Me? I went to see it for two reasons and two reasons only...
beefcake and gore. I got plenty of both!

300 harkens back to the old "sword and saddle" movies I used to watch on TV when I was a kid. I loved Steve Reeves. Maybe that's where I got my appreciation for burly men.

Yes, true, none of the men were the least bit hairy, especially for Greeks (which is why the film is NOT perfect...I love HAIRY men!). But dammit, glorious male torso!!! LOTS OF IT!! Oh BABY!!!

And gore...Only Elena will sympathize with me on that one, but what can I say? I like bloody movies.

Joey wasn't into it...he made a comment about it being okay once you get past the pro-war stuff. Plus he said I'm way more into video games than he is (which is true...I'm an old D&D-er who never out-grew that kind of stuff).

This does not mean I'm pro-war or like REAL violence. I know make-believe from reality. But with all the commentary being written about it, it makes me feel like I have to defend my enjoyment of, what is for me, just mindless entertainment.

In the meantime, pass the beefcake please!