Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Rodrigo Santoro
MPAA Rating: (for graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity)
Running Time: 1:57
Release Date: 3/9/07
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Review by Mark Dujsik
At its best, 300 is some kind of glorious madness, a sword-and-sandal epic that neither looks nor feels like any entries in the genre that have come before it, and for most of its running time, 300 is at its best. The sophomore feature of director Zack Snyder is an assured visual stunner, full of sumptuous and grisly visions of an era past yet that still never existed. Greek history on steroids, the film uses the same blue-screen technique employed in Sin City. The connection between those films is more concrete in that they are adaptations of esteemed graphic novelist Frank Miller's work. Snyder, the technical crew, and the team of visual effects artists have captured the essence and attempted to copy Miller's book for the screen, and in the meticulous mise en scène, color manipulation, and battle choreography, they have done just that. The film has a dreamy, graceful editing style that shows up the frenetic principle of hack and slash editing to which we have become accustomed in action movies, and it features performances so over-the-top they achieve their own distorted sense of realism. The entire production is aimed at presenting a balls-to-the-wall experience of considerable magnitude.
Set in 5th century B.C., the story opens with narration from Dilios (David Wenham), one of film's hero's soldiers, who tells of the existence of a child of Sparta. At birth, they are deemed worthy or unworthy of life by baby inspectors at the top of a cliff, overlooking the infant skeletons of the undeserving. From a young age, the children of Sparta are taught the fighting life of a warrior, and at seven, they are sent off into the wilderness to fend for themselves. Upon returning to the city-state, one of these children grows up to be king. Leonidas (Gerard Butler) has taken the reigns in difficult times. The Persian Empire is peacefully trying to take over Greece, and a messenger (Peter Mensah) arrives in Sparta with the crowns and skulls of conquered kings. Leonidas counters the Persian king's message by sending the messenger and the compatriots who accompany him into a pit of seemingly never-ending darkness. Against the warnings of an oracle and the law of the priests, Leonidas takes 300 men to cut off the Persian advance, leaving his queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) to work the political side of gaining more support from the city-state's council.
Filming entirely in front of blue and green screens has been a sometimes shaky affair, but it's been pretty close to perfected here. The landscapes are convincing, from the recreation of ancient Sparta with its pillared buildings to the wheat fields outside the city with mountains rising in the background to the rocky terrain overlooking the sea. More imaginative locales are equally stunning but with an added power. A temple perches atop a mountain, where a sheer draped oracle (Kelly Craig) seemingly floats in her interpretative dance movements that precede the dooming message from the gods. The young Leonidas spars with a wolf that could only come from the underworld in a dark, snowy nightmare of a wasteland. Part of the Persian navy succumbs to a storm off the shore as Leonidas and his men watch, the king completely unmoved by the spectacle. For the wonders, there are horrors, too. The priests in the temple are inbred monsters, their faces infested with boils. A disfigured Spartan named Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), whose parents took him away as a child to save his life, follows the 300 as they make their way, pleads for Leonidas to allow him to join the battle, and upon his refusal, becomes a traitor. Perhaps most striking is the image of the victims of a town arranged into a tree, haunting vision of Persian brutality.
Snyder owes as much to Julie Taymor's work (not on this film, mind you) for the inspiration of the movement of the images as he does to Miller for the images themselves. (Tyler Bates' music, appropriately enough, is either homage or rip-off of Elliot Goldenthal's score for Taymor's Titus.) There's a lot of slow motion at play here, but far from pretentious emphasis, it lends a graceful quality to the carnage (The blood is decidedly two-dimensional, in tune with the comic origins). Even though the first battle between the Spartans and the Persians is done in a quick-cut fashion, Snyder and editor William Hoy allow the rest of the fights to play out in extended takes. There's one particularly bravado scene that follow Leonidas' charge against the Persians, thrusting his spear (which the camera follows when he throws it) and hacking and slashing with his sword as he progresses. The long, medium distance takes give a better sense of the battle and allow for some impressive sights, as when the Spartans push man after man off a cliff into the crashing sea below. Another fight against King Xerxes' (Rodrigo Santoro) personal guards, nicknamed the Immortals, and a giant with a high threshold for pain is striking.
In fact, once the battles start, the film pulls out all the stops, with attacks from an armor-clad rhinoceros, elephants, and even mystics with primitive grenades. The film just about stops dead in its tracks when the story returns to Sparta to follow the queen's dealings with the treacherous Theron (Dominc West), and her speeches of "freedom isn't free" and asking the council for more troops strike a questionable note in our current political climate. There's also the inherent racism involved in the portrayal of the Persians, and isn't this really just war-mongering? If it is, it's war-mongering at its finest, most brazen. The Spartans' perfection of gallows humor lightens the mood a bit, and everyone in the film plays to the balcony with gusto and surprising effectiveness. David Wenham's brash narration is in line with the oral history presented, and Rodrigo Santoro's odd vocal register give Xerxes a more imposing nature than his seven-foot-tall frame. Gerard Butler, though, is like a force of nature in his performance, unrelenting in his heroic machismo.
If you're looking for complete historical accuracy, look elsewhere. The basics of the Battle of Thermopylae are presented correctly, but that's about it. No, 300 is all spectacle, but one so artfully composed and unabashedly presentational, it's a swift kick start to the imagination. There are certain films that one would like to take still images from it and hang them on the wall. 300 is one of those films.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.