Zack Snyder's 300 is a fantastic bit of puffy/silly cinematic hoobajoobery. Decapitations, orgies, naked male torsos, horrible death, rape (sort of... more on that later) and a final sacrifice justified through terrible retribution.
And three, well, I can only call them ERRORS, two of which weaken the story, and rob it of true greatness, and one of which... one of which... actually kind of makes it MORE interesting.
But first off, let me come clean on Zack Snyder. I have consistently trashed his remake of Dawn of the Dead, and expressed a lot of scepticism regarding 300 when I heard he was attached. Early trailers and behind-the-scenes footage only increased my concern. But Snyder has overcome my concerns: his handling of Miller's story is exceptional. He manages the fight scenes (and basically, this movie is an extended fight scene) very well: allowing confusion to reign when it should, but providing clarity at the exact moments it's required.
He seems to have understood that this is not a film of traditional suspense; the audience is for the most part well aware of what's about to happen at each stage in the story. His job has not been to surprise his audience or defeat their expectations -- instead he is required to fulfill those expectations and find little more than innovative stagings to provide the novelty that the story does not.
Good example is the death of the battle rhino. First off, battle rhinos are good. All films with battle rhinos charging like berserk Cadillacs with four-foot hood ornaments are made better for the inclusion. You're never sorry you put a battle rhino in your picture. Even Muppets like Battle Rhinos:
You know the scene: enraged battle rhino charging towards our hero. One heroic figure stands unconcerned as several tons of CGI monster come barreling forward, and blithely chucks a spear at it. You KNOW how this ends, so the only thing to watch for is how Snyder shows it to you.
Anyway, Snyder gets the job done here and elsewhere throughout the film with verve and an uncompromising vision. A couple of times the effects stutter, but for the most part you can sit back and get blown away.
So Zack, I'm in your corner now, and looking forward to your next film. You exceeded my expectations and made for us a damn fine movie, full of some very impressive effects.
Part of what makes any effects shots work, of course, is the performance of the actors. Gerard Butler pulls off the required frenzy of bloodlust and savage determination for Miller's interpretation of King Leonidas, which is really the only performance in the film that matters. The other Spartans have to shout a lot, and King Xerxes has to look freaky, and then there's Leonidas' wife, Queen Gorgo. Sadly, not this Gorgo:
But Lena Headey's character brings us to the first of my three issues with 300: Queen Gorgo turns out to be either stupid or a slut.
Spoilers ahead: if you haven't seen 300, you might want to give the rest of this post a miss.
Gorgo wants the Spartan council to send aid to Leonidas (her hubby) and his beleaguered soldiers. To do so, she requires the support of the Spartan bad guy, Theron. She meets Theron and asks for his assistance. He's willing to help... if she's willing to stray a little from her marital vows.
Gorgo doesn't even protest. She doesn't try any other ways to convince Theron. She doesn't even extract any promises from him (much less WAIT until he's actually done anything helpful before giving up the lid on her honeypot). It's just, "Hey, baby" and she drops her toga.
This is the woman who is married to King Leonidas, the guy who's so unbelievably righteous he murders messengers just for not being polite enough. Head of a society so rigid little kids are sent out into hostile wastes to prove they deserve a place among their elders. It's unclear, but presumably marriage vows are handled with similar ferocity and lack of compromise.
And so when Gorgo offers herself up to a man she knows is deceitful and cowardly, we lose all respect for her. Either she's stupid, making such an ill-considered deal (which turns out poorly for her, until vengeful murder has its way), or her marriage vows just aren't very important to her. When the moment comes, all I could think is, "Leonidas would rather die than come home to his wife an adulterer." Clearly he would, and if I can see that, how come his wife can't?
It's a disappointing story decision that robs the final act of the film of much of its power. Gorgo's (and by proxy, Leonidas') honour is saved by coincidence rather than her own strength and it seems so terribly out of character with her behaviour in the first half of the film that it's hard to accept.
But by no means does the film fall apart. There are still goosebumps and "Fuck yeah!" moments aplenty. These Spartans are here to fight, and fight they do. Although they seem to relinquish their vaunted discipline pretty quickly in favour of wild-ass action scenes.
Not that I'm complaining -- I'm a long-time lover of the wild-ass action. But if I were Ephialtes the hunchback, and I'd been told by Leonidas that I wasn't welcome to join the Spartans because their incredibly disciplined fighting style meant that his handicaps would endanger the men around him, I'd be a little pissed at watched the Spartans then go down and fight in wild melees, where no discipline holds sway at all. Leonidas lies to Ephialtes, there's no other way to describe it.
And this is another disappointing decision. Better had Leonidas simply said, "No, you're ugly and we don't fight with ugly people," or had the Spartan's actual fighting style resembled his description, than this weak-kneed, cheaply thrown-together escape from the film's own cold-hearted premises. We can't make Leonidas TOO bad, otherwise the audience won't like him, so we'll PRETEND there's a legitimate excuse for him sending Ephialtes away, but then we won't abide by the conditions that excuse imposes on our choreography.
It would have been interesting to see the Spartans fight in strict hoplite formation (probably not historically accurate, but let's remember the battle rhinos, yes?). A challenge for a director to make such rigid formation and fighting style interesting. It would likewise have been interesting to see Leonidas' snobbery for what it is: a refusal to accept that which is different. A refusal to value contributions that do not carry the agreed-upon, external signs of greatness.
Sadly, the story does not offer either of those interesting possibilities, and so the audience is asked to accept a weak excuse to make the director's job easier. Disappointing.
Leonidas is a typical (one might say stereotypical) Miller hero: possessed of unquestioning confidence in his own moral judgement, which is of course backed up by his unmatchable physical prowess. Miller's universes mostly figure physical prowess as demonstrative of moral rectitude. His rejection of Ephialtes is unsurprising, indeed, necessary, in order that the moral quality of the film's universe remain consistent. There cannot be discord amongst the rippling torsos of the Spartans. There can't even be hairy chests, which for a bunch of Greek guys has to be considered one of the most egregious anachronisms of the film (followed closely by David Wenham's BLONDE Spartan).
But Leonidas possesses a self-serving cynicism unlike that of Batman, any of his Sin City tough guys, or even Garrett from Elektra: Assassin (the most cynical and interesting of all Miller's heroes). He flouts Spartan law by leading his soldiers to Thermopylae, travelling to battle on the thinnest of excuses, but when the moment of crisis comes and he must justify leading his men to their own deaths, on what does he base the moral foundation of his decision? Spartan law.
How can this be? How can his men accept this sudden demand that they follow the laws they've already walked themselves in violation of? Why would Leonidas, in violation of Spartan law (and willfully so), suddenly revert to demanding that those laws be upheld?
This is the decision that does NOT weaken the story. It reveals the bizarre and tortorous moral logic that this story rests upon, and renders the tale all the more fascinating for its momentary lifting of the lid of certainty and righteousness. For just a moment, we see Leonidas' self-centered will driving him forward to death. And his unwillingness to take the responsibility for the slaughter he is leading his men towards diminishes him fractionally, crucially, and reveals within him his own insecurity and fear. Because we know perfectly well that his men would stand and fight just because he told them to. He doesn't NEED the shelter of the law. He needs nothing more than his own infectious courage.
Externally, Miller's Leonidas is a man immune to uncertainty. He always knows what's right. He has no doubt in the righteousness of his efforts. But inwardly, he cannot bear the weight of that righteousness. Inwardly he must rely on that which he knows to be hollow: the laws of his kingdom and the honour and love of his (adulterous) wife. In his last moment he calls out for her, violating the Spartan code of hardness and strength (actual dialogue: "Spartans must be hard and strong. They must be hard. They must be strong."), for a woman who has already betrayed his trust.
It's in the failures that 300 is most interesting. It's a grand film, full of cinematic joy, and head and shoulder above most of what we get offered nowadays. Zack Snyder has taken Rodriguez' vision of "pure" cinema, unfettered by studios, sets or locations, and pushed it even further beyond what we have seen before. If it had been a little bit more aware of its own weaknesses, it would have been great.