Could it be that ripped abdominals and leather short shorts were standard ordnances in the hyper-masculine military culture of ancient Greece? It would seem to be so, at least in Zack Snyder’s cinematic adaptation of Frank Miller’s "300." Even the trailer for the film looks like glorified gay porn - and that alone is a reason to go. But combined with a heroic, historic story, extraordinarily stylish visuals and some of the most arresting fight sequences yet to hit the screen, "300" is more than eye candy. It’s an in-your-face storytelling experience that, like its Spartan subjects, takes no prisoners and defies its opposition (read: critics) to challenge its would-be domination at the box office.
Not this critic. "300" is the first must-see movie of 2007.
The story roughly (and I mean that) documents the Battle of Thermopylae, where an independent force of 300 Spartan warriors led by King Leonidas held off the invading Persian army, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, until Greek forces could marshal a defense. The battle is supposed to have lasted nearly three days, an improbability made possible by the legendary fighting prowess of the Spartan warriors, who were trained from birth to fight and die in glorious battle, and Leonidas’ strategy of forcing the Persian horde to march through a tiny mountain bottleneck called the "Gates of Hell." In this somewhat fanciful rendition, Leonidas (Gerard Butler, last seen warbling beneath the Paris Opera House) and his men confront all manners of fanciful fighting creatures - some men, some CGI - at the bidding of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), looking for all the world as if he stepped out of the main event at the Black Party.
At Leonidas’ side stands a host of buff men with muscled shoulders and ripped bicepts, among them David Wenham (last seen herding hobbits) and newcomer Tom Wisdom, who makes his cinematic debut in hunky style. On the whole they’re not the world’s most accomplished actors - Gerard and Wenham provide the most theatrical weight to their blood lust, while many of the others (including Santoro) sound as if they’re simply trying too hard. But they are an impressive-looking fighting force. Together these men strike out from Sparta after their governing council opts, for political reasons, not to go to war against the invading army. They pass by Athens, which has been razed to the ground, and make their stands on the cliffs of Thermopylae, where the Persian army battles first the elements, and then the tiny Spartan contingent. It doesn’t go well for them: the Spartans, superior in the craft of war, spend the bulk of the film repelling the invaders successfully.
The film’s fighting sequences are truly thrilling - albeit intensely gory. They’re also enhanced by audacious technical wizardry. The action was shot largely indoors against bluescreens, allowing Snyder to "crush" and then colorize the live action, then layer it against CG backgrounds. Stylistically, it works well: even as we watch one choreographed dance of decapitation and dismemberment after another, we disassociate to a degree from the sheer violence. The result is less an orgy of blood and more an actualized celebration of a culture that lived to test its courage and prowess against all who would threaten its freedom.
Unfortunately, it’s not all blood games. The film shines in its action, but suffers from its comparable lack of pedigree in both writing and acting. Tremendous gaps in exposition make of the plot a bit of a battle itself, forcing the film’s audience to abandon its desire to comprehend both the historical motivation of the assault and the political maneuverings that force Leonidas to strike on his own. And when the action abates, we’re treated to either the disjointed, comparatively boring power struggle between Leonides’ wife Gorgo (Lena Headley) and turncoat Theron (Dominic West) - or overwrought motivational speeches that come tumbling from the mouth of Leonides at the highest volume he can muster with such brilliant suggestions as, "Eat a hearty breakfast, men - for tonight we dine in Hell!"
Beyond the occasionally insensate dialogue, however, the movie sizzles through its two-hour stretch. Were this merely a colorful take on the barbarism of war, therefore, I might deduce that it’s entertaining... and that we’ve seen it all before. But "300" manages to tap not only into our inherent violent tendencies, playing them out on-screen in a lurid fashion ripped alternatively from our darkest dreams and our most oft-endorsed visualization of the perfect male physique. But it also suggests that self-actualization can be reached via the totality of the human experience - not solely from our most harmonious aspects. War in the 21st century has become, ironically, a civilized event from which we are so dramatically removed that even those fighting in Iraq are largely not afforded its questionable benefits. They do not match wits and strength directly with their enemy, proving their prowess and celebrating their devotion to the art of the fight; they press unthinking buttons or fire weapons from a hundred yards away in an unthinking, direct-line comparison between military budgets and the weapons of death they can devise. It’s safer, true; but for many, safety is little more than the reduction of risk, robbing us of the most acute experiences available to our individual lives.
By contrast, "300" reminds us that we are, at heart, an aggressive species that can reach new potential not just by avoiding conflict, but in some cases by glorifying ourselves through direct expression of it. It’s a revolutionary thought - but how many of us, on our dying day, can say we completely committed our lives to a single pursuit, even something as vainglorious as the execution of death on the battlefield? And as you watch this film, listen closely for the voices of those 300 men, asking you: will your life mean this much?
King Leonidas :: Gerard Butler
Queen Gorgo :: Lena Headey
Dilios :: David Wenham
Theron :: Dominic West
Xerxes :: Rodrigo Santoro
Captain :: Vincent Regan
Stelios :: Michael Fassbender
Astinos :: Tom Wisdom
Daxos :: Andrew Pleavin
Ephialtes :: Andrew Tiernan
Pleistarchos :: Giovani Cimmino
Loyalist :: Stephen McHattie
Ephor 1 :: Greg Kramer
Leonidas' Mother :: Marie-Julie Rivest
Ephor 2 :: Alex Ivanovici
Oracle Girl :: Kelly Craig
Leonidas at 7/8 :: Eli Snyder
Leonidas at 15 :: Tyler Neitzel
Leonidas' Father :: Tim Connolly
Writer, Zack Snyder; Writer, Kurt Johnstad; Writer, Michael Gordon; Producer, Gianni Nunnari; Producer, Mark Canton; Producer, Bernie Goldmann; Producer, Jeffrey Silver; Executive Producer, Frank Miller; Executive Producer, Deborah Snyder; Executive Producer, Craig Flores; Executive Producer, Thomas Tull; Executive Producer, William Fay; Executive Producer, Benjamin Waisbren; Cinematographer, Larry Fong; Production Design, James D. Bissell; Film Editor, William Hoy; Original Music, Tyler Bates; Set Decoration, Paul Hotte; Costume Designer, Michael Wilkinson; Casting, Carrie Hilton; Art Direction, Isabelle Guay; Art Direction, Nicolas Lepage; Art Direction, Jean-Pierre Paquet.