Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Tinseltown
Here's the thing about shallow exercises in style: They've gotten an unnecessarily bad rap. Critics, en masse, seem to have grown incapable of recognizing when something succeeds on a purely surface level.
Look at Sin City, the 2005 film interpretation of the Frank Miller graphic novel series, by Miller and co-director Robert Rodriguez. It offered absolutely nothing of redeeming social value. It was an experiment in re-creating the language of panel-art literature for the screen. And a lot of the time, it was pretty freaking awesome.
Director Zack Snyder's adaptation of Miller's 1998 comic series 300 cribs much of the same sensibility. Yet it also appears to be trying way too hard to be about something and ends up letting pretentiousness smother its cool.
Miller took as his starting point the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, when an invading Persian army threatened Greece with enslavement. Leonidas (Gerard Butler), king of the battle-tested Spartans, wants to lead his army to head off the assault, but an oracle's proclamation forbids him from taking the entire force. Instead, he leads a mere 300 men to a narrow mountain pass near the Persian staging area, where joined by another small band of troops from the neighboring Arcadians he plans to use the restrictive terrain to negate the Persians' massive manpower advantage.
With Frank Miller serving as executive producer, Snyder embraces the Sin City blueprint for satisfying the comic-book audience base. The color palette becomes part of the film's personality, with Sin City's black-and-white replaced by an omnipresent bronze tint. Actors are set against backgrounds largely created by computers, lending every scene a surreal quality; grotesque characters like the tragic, traitorous hunchback Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) are vividly realized. And most significantly, shots from the film are set up to mimic Miller's drawings almost down to the last brushstroke.
That's all well and good to the extent that it makes 300 a fairly distinctive viewing experience. Yet there's also a strangely static quality to Snyder's direction, as he stop-starts his way through the epic battle sequences so that individual sword thrusts and decapitations can become stand-alone tableaux. And unfortunately, that sense of striking a pose carries over to 300's thematic thrust.
The script adapted by Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon finds our narrator Dilios (David Wenham) and other characters engaging in a mess of speechifying about the significance of the Spartans' valiant sacrifice. They're defending free men everywhere, we hear with an almost clockwork regularity.
"Freedom isn't free," Leonidas' queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) pronounces, unwittingly evoking the kind of jingoism mocked by song lyrics in Team America: World Police. It becomes hard not to read 300 as a rallying cry for supporting the valiant warriors who protect us from invasive influences.
But even though it starts to feel a little bit like Defending the Troop Surge: The Motion Picture, it's not the specific nature of 300's politics that proves problematic. Any kind of message-mongering would start to feel ridiculous in a movie that makes sure we get a slow-motion angle on a severed head flying through the air.
As nifty as 300 looks at times, it starts to get caught up in having something important to say, something for Snyder to talk about on the DVD commentary besides the digitized blood spatters. An exercise in style shouldn't have to feel like this much work.