Monday, March 19, 2007

I watched it twice, and I'll be glad to watch it again!

Lets get the basics right.

Graphic Novel: a form of comics, usually with lengthy and complex story lines, and often aimed at mature audiences.

With that clarity, lets us proceed to 300, the very faithful adaptation of Frank Miller's (Sin City) graphic novel of the same name. In a nutshell, 300 is the story of the battle of Thermopylae where a handful of Spartans resisted the invading Persian Army and died a 'glorious death'. Frank Miller wrote what can be best described as historical fiction - based on historical facts, but fiction nonetheless. In fact, his novel is based on the 1960s movie The 300 Spartans. Once we get that factoid out of the way, we are set for one hell of a ride.

Early on in the movie, we get a glimpse of the hard-as-nails soldier manufacturing factory (agoge) that all Spartans are turned out of. Given the brutality with which the young Leonidas beats up his fellow men, its a miracle that he turns out to be the loving husband and doting father. But then, we are talking about fiction here. King Leonidas' seemingly idyllic existence is shattered when a Persian emissary arrives with a collection of kings' skulls, demanding a tribute of land and water to the god king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). What follows is the most impressive dialogue delivery in the movie - "This is Sparta" bellows Leonidas (Gerard Butler or Attila for all you History Channel regulars) before he pushes the poor guy into the well.

And thus begins the war against the Persians - well, not quite. For Leonidas must consult the Oracle and obtain the blessing of the Ephors (priests of the old gods, inbred swine says the narrator), who refuse to do so since they have been bought over by Persian gold. Leonidas wants to fight anyway and inspired by his fiery queen Drogo (nice name), he assembles a band of 300 warriors and marches on to the Hot Gates where he hopes to thwart the entry of the Persians into Spartan soil.

All goes well at the beginning, with the Persians crumbling under the united Spartan fighting machine. Even the Immortals, Xerxes' elite fighting force, are pushed back by the Spartans. Impressed, Xerxes offers to make Leonidas warlord of all Greece and promises untold riches in return to Leonidas 'kneeling to him'. Obviously, Leonidas refuses and the Spartans (with a little help from the Arcadians) push back wave after wave of the Persian army. Till finally, Ephialtes, the hunchback who is refused a fighting position in the army, betrays the hidden goat path to Xerxes. The Arcadians leave in the face of sure death, but the Spartans stay behind for a last stand, and before the battle ends, show that 'even a God King can bleed'! The story of the 300 Spartans ignites the rest of Sparta and Greece, who unite to fight the Persians.

Undeniably one of the best action movies ever, 300 is a great visual treat. And I'm not just talking about the brilliant CGI background (the movie was shot with live action against giant blue screens and the scenery filled in with CGI). I have never seen violence look so exciting or blood spilt more beautifully. The Spartans fight as a single unit, thrusting with their spears and blocking with their shields as one. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't among those who gushed about the fountains of blood in Kill Bill Vol I. In 300, when blood is spilt, it is in the form of beautiful red corpuscles floating in the breeze. Off spear points and swords, out of severed necks and sword-slashed chests, and finally out of the god king's face. I repeat, I have never seen such beautiful violence.

The dialogue, on the other hand, is painfully comic [book]! While "This is Sparta" and "tonight we dine in hell" are amazing (what lung power! And such nice teeth!!), the rest leave a lot to be desired. And the voice-over by Dilios (David Wenham, Faramir in LOTR) is just annoying - he takes great pains to sound like a wheezy, old geezer and causes our ear drums even greater pain! The only saving grace is the scene where Xerxes tells a defiant Leonidas that he will exterminate Sparta and his name from history. I have to see the movie again to recall all of the dialogue, but Leonidas' retort goes like this: " The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant, that a few stood against many, and before this battle is over, that even a god-king can bleed".

While Frank Miller and Zack Snyder have taken quite a few liberties with history, they have got one thing right - Spartan women were powerful and Queen Drogo (Lena Headey) is testament to that fact here. When Leonidas leaves for the Hot Gates, she tells him " Come back with your shield, or on it!" What a woman!

Make no mistake, 300 is an ode to testosterone driven masculinity. Early on, we get a glimpse of corded muscles pushing open massive wooden doors. The men go to battle with just shin guards and crimson capes for protection so that the audience can get their fill of those amazing six-packs. Which is a step ahead of the book, where even the leather codpieces are conspicuous by their absence. Gerard Butler struts about unabashedly in the buff, and how! To top it all Xerxes wears nothing but some chains and a golden bikini!

While we are on the topic of Xerxes, how could they turn such a beautiful man into this?

The homophobic undercurrents are strong in 300. Leonidas calls the Athenians philosophers and 'boy-lovers', Xerxes is pretty androgynous with all that jewellery and eye makeup, and the Persian camp is full of lesbians. The people in Iran are already up in arms against the depiction of Xerxes and the Persians in the movie (since nobody probably read the book). One of the reasons being that the real Xerxes was in fact, more masculine and a lot hairier than the Spartans. Plus, he wore a lot more clothing as we can see in the picture below.

The movie also glosses over the fact that quite a number of the Spartan society were gay. In Frank Miller's world, the villains seem to be gay, while the heroes are ramrod straight (pun unintended). In addition, the Persians fight real dirty - stabbing from the back and falling upon a single Spartan in great numbers. And then there is great debate about where Dubya fits into all of this. I say, forget all that - this is an action movie, not a political statement. Unhook your brains, enjoy the action, admire the CGI and feast on the sight of those gloriously toned bodies. And remember to work harder at the gym!

Verdict: Do I need to say it?

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