Greek and Destroy
There is an axiom against which any graphic novel adaptation should be held: just because we can make it, doesn't mean we should. I had my apprehensions about Robert Rodriguez taking Frank Miller's gleefully gory "Sin City"
and turning it into a black-and-white pet project. But happily, and despite a few too many bursts of color, Mr. Rodriguez' eye for the material and ear for dark humor proved me wrong. With my defenses lowered, and after a slam-bang preview, I was less wary about director Zack Snyder's take on "300", Mr. Miller's beloved interpretation of the Battle of Thermopylae. This time, however, something didn't quite fit. While the film is stunning to look at, the added scenes and scenery-devouring acting fall flat.
Perhaps using "Sin City" as a template, the filmmakers of "300" have taken Mr. Miller's graphic novel and used it as a visual guide. There are moments in the film that are rendered almost verbatim from the source material. And those moments are stunning to behold. There is nothing in director Zack Snyder's past (which includes 2004's spirited remake of "Dawn of the Dead") to make me think he was prepared for the challenge of bringing "300" to the screen but, from a visual standpoint, he knocked it out of the park. Using a technique he calls "the crush", he deepens the dark tones and brings out the reds and golds, giving the film a unique, almost metallic feel. The battle scenes themselves are nothing short of brutal. Limbs fly, decapitations abound; this is what they, in the business, call a "hard R". Where "Sin City" had its tongue firmly in its cheek, "300" would rather lop its off if it means extra bloodshed. If only the story could have supported the visual style.
As Mr. Miller's fans already know, "300" tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, during which (legend has it) King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and 300 Spartans stood toe-to-toe against an army of countless Persians. Mr. Miller's original story is not meant to be historically precise. The Spartans bring little into battle but helmet, spear, shield and Speedo, for example. Instead, Mr. Miller takes real events and characters and spins them to his dark whims. The story exists somewhere between fact and myth and, aside from the battle itself, there is not much story in the rather short original novel.
In bringing "300" to the screen, Mr. Snyder, who wrote the script with Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon, does little to flesh out the characters - only Leonidas is given any backstory. The rest of the cast, Spartan and Persian alike, are largely blank slates. Instead, the film is padded with a subplot involving the Spartan Queen and some political shenanigans that feel like a low-rent "Gladiator"
knock-off. Even the dialogue taken from Mr. Miller's novel, which was so visceral on the page, is way over-the-top when it's screamed by actual battle-weary actors. Further, half-naked Spartan soldiers may work on paper, but in reality "300" looks too often like some S&M Chippendale's show. The final nail in the coffin may be the representation of the self-proclaimed god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Not since Jaye Davidson descended from Ra's throne and into camp history in 1994's "Stargate" has a villain been so totally, laughably non-threatening.
In the end, "300" takes its place alongside Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula", "Road to Perdition"
and "From Hell"
in the annals of films that look beautiful but have little story to sustain them. Sure, there are scenes I'd love to see again, but I might keep the sound off, and I'll be using that fast forward button a lot.