300


Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
300
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

The Battle of Thermopylae pitted the independent city-states of ancient Greece against the overwhelming power of the massive Persian army commanded by brutal King Xerxes. In the lead of the tiny Greek army is a contingent of Spartan soldiers, the ultimate warriors, headed by good King Leonidas (Gerard Butler). Leonidas, in order to get the Greek states to unite, will pit his men against the irresistible Persian hordes, sacrificing with honor his valiant “300.”

Robin:
Fanboys (and those few fangirls) of Frank Miller’s (with Lynn Varley) graphic novel, 300, rejoice! You are about to be dazzled by the CGI recreation of that book that will wow the fans on both big and small screens. Sophomore helmer Zach Snyder (“Dawn of the Dead (2004)”) pulls out all of the blue screen stops in his visually stunning adaptation of the story of the 300 Spartan warriors that, with scant support from the other Greek city-states, stood against the most powerful army in the world.

300” starts out with a making-of-a-warrior-king as we watch young Leonidas (Eli Snyder) being trained by his father (Tim Connolly) in the art of war. As he grows into early manhood, the 15-year old king-to-be (played by Tyler Max Neitzel) is taken from the arms of his mother and immersed in the Spartan way of life. The stoic, intense training pays off when the grown up Leonidas (Butler) is called upon to blunt the pending invasion by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his huge army. He gathers 300 of his finest soldiers and they set off into harm’s way. The result is a solid mix of live action and computer animation.

The Lord of The Rings,” “Braveheart,” “The Road Warrior” and “Gladiator” came to mind more than once as I watched the drama of the battle of Thermopylae unfold on the big screen. But, for “300,” this imitation is to be praised as Snyder and his own army of artists, actors and animators create a film that really has the look and feel of a highly stylized graphic novel. Color is used sparingly in the film’s palate, accentuating the bright reds of the Spartan cloaks, helping giving the film its distinctive book look.

CGI fans are going to love “300,” as will the fanboys who get a goodly dose of the gratuitous sex, nudity and ultra-violent combat that they hope for. The computer animation is slick as heck with the massive Persian army bringing huge battle elephants and, if you can believe it, a battle rhino into the fray. (The giant, armored rhinoceros is no match for the Spartans, though.) The filmmakers do a seamless job in joining the up front live action with the visually complex computer-driven background. Tech credits are top notch.

The acting, surprisingly, skirts the camp route as the principal characters are given personality if not much dimension. Gerard Butler is quite good as King Leonidas, lending the man dignity, bravery and loyalty as he accepts his and his men’s annihilation with plucky courage and humor. It is a very different role than his “Phantom of the Opera” and the actor has terrific screen presence here. Lena Headey is his beautiful, strong-willed and intelligent wife, Queen Gorgo, who is a politically correct character of an empowered woman, something that Sparta was not known to foster. The rest of the main cast, mostly Leonidas’s warriors, are well developed and Rodrigo Santoro giving an amusing, over the top performance as the arrogant, giant King Xerxes, chewing up the scenery during his time on screen.

300” may be aimed at the graphic novel’s fans – and it squarely hits that 17 to 24 male mark – but it should also draw moviegoers who appreciate a well made actioner that does a decent job in giving us a slice of ancient Greek history. I give it a B.

Laura:
When ancient Greece was the cradle of democracy, it was threatened by the Persian God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, "Carandiru," Paulo on TV's "Lost") who sent a Messenger (Peter Mensah, "Tears of the Sun," "Hidalgo") to Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, "Dear Frankie," "The Phantom of the Opera") promising him power and reaches if he would just kneel before him.  But the warrior Spartans were free men and Leonidas defied his council and the Oracle to stand and fight with only "300."

Using the same techniques that brought graphic novelist Frank Miller's "Sin City" to the big screen, cowriter (with Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon)/director Zack Snyder (2004's "Dawn of the Dead") produces a far more awe-inspiring result by taking history and making it legend.  If forgiven some fan-boy pandering and homophobia, "300" is a magnificent spectacle and testament to heroic sacrifice in the name of freedom.

Dilios (David Wenham, "The Proposition"), the storyteller of the bunch, narrates Leonidas's early years which also serve to educate on the training of the Spartan male.  At birth, any sign of weakness condemns the child to death.  At the age of seven, a boy is separated from his mother and sent into a world of violent military training.  Using only his wits to survive a harsh winter, Leonidas slays a giant wolf by leading it into a rocky crevice, an event that foreshadows his later famous battle.

After insulting Xerxes by killing his messengers, Leonidas is forbidden by law to go into battle, but Queen Gorgo's (Lena Headey, "The Brothers Grimm," "Imagine Me & You") advice mirrors his own morality and so he 'goes for a walk' with a few hundred 'bodyguards.'  Arriving at the Hot Gates of Thermopylae, where they will have a geographical advantage over approaching Persians, Leonidas is finally approached by the man who has been following them.  Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan, "The Pianist") is a deformed hunchback (think the bulkier counterpart to Rings's Gollum), a Spartan saved when his mother fled his homeland, who begs to fight with Leonidas's men and tells of the goat path which allowed him to approach from their rear.  Leonidas offers Ephialtes other roles but denies his request and a traitor is born.

"300" has been dazzling up until this point, with its hyper-real desaturated look which renders people fantastically while accentuating every pore (the white eyes of the Messenger seem to glow in the dark against his black skin, while the texture of a Persian Emissary's (Tyrone Benskin) face is seen as if under a microscope). The Oracle, a young woman in flowing gown, seems to float as if suspended in a tank of water.  The wolf slain by Leonidas is a fairy tale creature of red eyes and suggestive shadow.  But once the battle begins, a series of conflicts that come in waves, we are treated to one amazing sight after another - a Persian whip flicks right off the screen, Persian soldiers are pushed off a cliff in stylized relief, a rain of arrows blots out the sun.  The most amazing special effect is Xerxes himself, a towering, oiled and eye-linered figure whose thrown platform is carried on the backs of slaves who act as steps as the God-king descends.  Xerxes is adored with piercings, chains and jewels and speaks in a synthesized voice.

And herein also lies a problem.  The Spartan ethic as reflected here is uncomfortably close to a Nazi Aryan attitude against physical deformity and homosexuality, with Xerxes' appearance and hedonistic ways suggesting an alternative lifestyle (Ephialtes is seduced within an orgy of amorous women). The tendency towards "Lord of the Rings" style visuals (Ephialtes, the monstrous Executioner (Leon Laderach, "Monkeybone"), otherwordly rhinos and elephants), while entertaining, is distracting from a story strong enough for its own brand of realism.

But "300" still succeeds, aided by the strong central performance of Gerard Butler, who makes Leonidas a leader worth dying for.  These may be a macho bunch of guys prone to sports arena style chanting, but they are undeniably courageous.  In addition to the truly fine Butler, standouts include Vincent Regan ("Troy," "Unleashed") as the Captain, devastated when his eldest, Astinos (Tom Wisdom), falls and Michael Fassbender's striking Stelios.  Lena Headey epitomizes the strong Spartan woman and Dominic West ("Mona Lisa Smile," "The Forgotten") gives charismatic shading to his traitorous politician.

The film's production design is extraordinary, all sets and computer imagery, and Larry Fong's cinematography and William Hoy's ("We Were Soldiers," "I, Robot") editing are seamless, Hoy's cuts sometimes humorous.  Zack Snyder made quite the auspicious directorial debut with his terrific "Dawn of the Dead" remake, but "300" catapults him into a whole new league.

(It should be noted that "300" will be appearing on IMAX, as well as traditional, screens and if ever there was a movie that deserved the IMAX treatment, this is it.)

B+
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