A film review by Craig J. Koban
Rank: # 10
2007, R, 116 mins.
King Leonidas: Gerard Butler / Queen Gorgo: Lena Headey / Dilios: David Wenham
/ Theron: Dominic West / Xerxes: Rodrigo Santoro / Captain: Vincent Regan
/ Stelios: Michael Fassbender / Directed by Zack Snyder / Written by Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon
/ Based on the novel by Frank Miller - -
King Leonidas: Gerard Butler / Queen Gorgo: Lena Headey / Dilios: David Wenham / Theron: Dominic West / Xerxes: Rodrigo Santoro / Captain: Vincent Regan / Stelios: Michael Fassbender /
Directed by Zack Snyder / Written by Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon / Based on the novel by Frank Miller - -
If General George S. Patton were alive today then I categorically believe that 300 would be his favorite film of all-time. While I watched it I was constantly reminded of one of his most famous quotes:
"The object of war is not to die for country, but to make the other bastard die for his."
300 is like GLADIATOR on a cocktail of speed and hallucinogenic drugs. It feels like it was written with copious amounts of splattered blood and directed with fever pitched adrenaline and machismo. This is a movie for guys that like movies, where men can be super-humanly chiseled and powerful lay a path of bloody and unparalleled carnage behind them in an effort to fight for God, country, and the voluptuous women back home. What male ego does not fantasize about that?
More than anything, the film is a fearsome and vigorous exercise in wall-to-wall violence and wanton mayhem. Yet, by the end of 300 I found myself marveling at the sheer insanity and irresponsibility of its excesses. It certainly attains the level of a stirring and powerfully mounted action picture and a groundbreaking visual effects odyssey. The film may be sick and deplorable with its imagery (in terms of bloodshed, this one may set a cinematic record for most on-screen deaths ever), but there is considerable artistry and craft in its presentation.
300 is an audio/visual symphony that is orchestrated brilliantly Zach Snyder (DAWN OF THE DEAD), who found inspiration for the film in the form of the classic graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller (the latter – it could be argued – is one of the all-time greats in his field). As an evocative illustrator with bold and in-your-face visuals and a writer with strong storytelling, few are Miller’s equal in the comicdom. He crafted the SIN CITY novels and a few of them made it to the big screen in the most faithful comic book adaptations ever in 2005. SIN CITY was a supreme achievement and a gorgeously mounted comic book film if there ever was one. Now comes Snyder and 300, which again uses most of the same shooting style to lovingly recreate Miller’s stirring and boisterous visuals to the silver screen.
I read all of the 300 graphic novels back in 1998 (which were illustrated as double page spreads – twice the size as a normal comic book page) all of which had wonderful titles: Honor, Duty, Glory, Combat and Victory respectively. The story loosely (and I use the term strongly) depicts the Battle of Thermopylae and the events leading up to it from the perspective of King Leonidas of Sparta. Miller himself was inspired by the real-life battle after viewing the 1962 film THE 300 SPARTANS as a child. It should be noted that his novels (and the film adaptation) never goes out of its way for historical accuracy. Anyone familiar with Miller’s work in the books knows that he was not going for faithfully re-enacting history in comic book form, nor was he doing a accurate biography. Instead, Miller was chiefly concerned with presenting a heightened sense of a surrealistic reality. There was a vividness and haunting strength to Miller’s imagery. You find yourself not challenging their integrity; you more or less allow yourself to escape within them.
300 – the film – works precisely in the same fashion. It's a piece of pure cinematic escapism. We are less conscious of the reality of its images. Most important is how the visuals work on us by transporting us to a different time and place. There is little denying that 300 is far from a precise retelling of a famous historical battle, but the film is a powerful out-of-body experience. The more you become entrenched in the chaos and implausibility of its scenes, the more you buy into them. Again, 300 is not about historical realism. The film is about finding that often difficult intersection where comic books and the language and grammar of the movies intertwine. Like SIN CITY, 300 kind of effortlessly hones in on this meeting point.
Just as Robert Rodriguez did for his adaptation of Miller’s work, Snyder aimed for a shot-for-shot appropriation of the 300 novel. Numerous images - even lines of dialogue - are directly lifted from the books, not to mention the huge levels of artistic licence that Miller used in telling the story. Most crucial to getting the tone and look of the film down was Snyder's decision to film 300 using a "digital backlot." 300 was filmed in Montreal, but it just as well could have been Mars. Only the actors and props were filmed on gigantic bluescreen stages in the city. Everything else was created by computer generated visuals. Of the 1500 cuts in the film, 1300 involved some CG pixel trickery. A lot of the film was shot using real elements (all of the film’s actors portraying the warriors trained for six months to showcase themselves in ultimate, six-packed, bicep-bulging glory, and extensive animatronics and makeup were used for some of the creatures), but 300 is an unqualified triumph for its artificial, aesthetic flourishes. The ambitiousness of its art direction and style is astounding. Imagine Herculean super heroes that all look like Conan The Barbarian occupying a standard historical film story, but told with sweeping and fantastical vistas ala LORD OF THE RINGS and you kind of get 300. It’s a wonderfully audacious hybrid…and it works.
The film is 10 per cent story and characters and 90 per cent ceaseless energy, bombastic intensity, and wall-to-wall, animalistic bloodshed. 300 is gory, kinetic, action pornography. You would need a survey crew to assess the causalities in the film (at one point, the Spartans pile up the bodies of their victims to erect walls as high as small buildings). However, there still is a basic story and some well-rounded characters. The basis for the film is ancient Greece and one of its most legendary and mythical battles – the Battle of Thermopylae from 480BC. In a nutshell, the the battle pitted 300 members of the battle-hardened Spartan army lead by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, oozing rough and rugged manliness) versus the vastly superior Persian force of a million led by god-king King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, portrayed as an 8-foot giant that looks like a creepy cross between The Rock morphed with Prince). The Persians scour the lands and do anything within their means to conquer others and put them into slavery. Well, Leonidas will have none of that BS.
I do not need to post a spoiler warning here by saying that the Spartans gallantly lost the battle in the end (it is widely regarded as historical fact). The essence of the 300 Spartans and their determination and courage against odds eventually inspired future warriors to deal Xerxes' forces a bitter defeat a year later at the Battle of Plataea. Yet, this film is about the mighty 300 that stood bravely against an impossible number of adversaries that would make Las Vegas handicappers wince. But…geez…those Spartans were tough. Just how tough? Well, these men look like they were carved out of granite. Maximus and Spartacus together could not beat one of these monsters even if both of his hands were tied behind his back. These Spartans love battle to the point of sexual fantasy. This "love" is spawned at an early age. By the time they are 7-years-old Spartan lads are trained to lay a keg of whoop-ass on their opponents and then are – get this – thrown out into the snow covered wild to battle carnivorous wolves. If they return, they are worthy of being soldiers. It's a boot camp from hell.
Even the women of Spartan are pretty kick-ass. When Leonidas leaves home and his gorgeous, luminous babe of a wife, Queen Gorgo (the beautiful Lena Headey) stands by her man and tells him to either come home walking or come home dead on his shield. Now that’s support. Yet, the women here are not mere sex objects in the film, nor are they useless worry-mongers back at Sparta. When an unscrupulous and cagey politician named Theron (Dominic West) tries to frame Leonidas while he’s away, he also tries to frame his wife in a rather…uncompromising fashion. Let’s just say that when Gorgo stands up for herself and finally confronts this vile man once and for all, it creates a unanimous cheer from the viewers. The women of Sparta don’t put up with crap either.
Then there are the battle scenes, and when they occur they are among the most incredibly sustained moments of sheer head skewering, limb popping, bone crunching, and blood flying orgies of death that I’ve seen. The vast fights are every geek boy’s wet dream. We have beefed up grunts wearing speedos and long, flowing Superman-esque capes and wielding swords and shields battling enemies by the thousands. Just about everything but the kitchen sink is thrown at these guys and they come back looking for more. Nothing, it appears, quenches their collective thirst for the kill.
At one point a charging, armored Rhino is sent after them, then a series of giant Elephants, then a disfigured and malevolent giant with razors for teeth and a venomous taste for human blood (at one point this creature takes a sword right through his bicep, to which he removes it and throws it back at his victim). The visceral gore is oftentimes thrown at the screen in ridiculous levels, but the violence here is stylized in sort of a laughable and spirited kind of way. Amidst all of the decapitations and limbs flying everywhere, the film does infuse some light humor. I especially liked one moment where Leonidas enjoys a late, post battle snack - an apple – as he walks through the thousands of corpses that his men have left on the ground. An even funnier moment occurs when his captain has lost an eye in battle. He quickly bandages it up and when Leo asks him if he's fit to go on, he responds, “God was kind enough to grant me a spare eye.”
The film will be remembered for all of its jaw-dropping effects and action sequences, but many may overlook its more subtle achievements, like the performances. Gerald Butler, who has given many forgettable performances in films like THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and TOMB RAIDER 2, gives a fairly multi-faceted performance as King Leonidas. In terms of his outward façade and his personality in battle, Leonidas is a scenery chewing, one-man slaughterhouse. With his thick beard, gnarly temperament, teeth clenching stoicism, and Rasputin-like stare, Butler is a living, breathing iconic Miller hero come to life. Butler's ferocity as Leonidas will have men applauding in the aisles as he leads his man to death, but there is also a quiet conviction and humbleness to the man that realizes the gravity of his situation. For a larger-than-life comic book film, Butler’s nuanced and truthful performance helps ground the film down at times to help us catch a much needed breather at times.
300 is one of the great blood-soaked, sweat pouring, testosterone-induced tributes to guts and rugged masculinity that I’ve seen. By adapting the great graphic novel by Frank Miller of the same name and utilizing the same state-of-the art computer effects that saw the light of day in SIN CITY and SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, director Zack Snyder vividly recreates powerful and ethereal vistas that seem ripped right out of the comic pages. The film takes a real historical battle and manages to tell an old school Hollywood epic in redefining ways with New Age technology. Brimming to the hilt with sound and fury, 300 is an astounding realization of bringing the world of Miller’s work to life. The film is disgustingly violent and hyperactively tenacious, but its undying bravado is infectious and the artistry behind bringing the graphic novel to the screen is beautifully handled. I was simply exhausted after seeing 300, but not so much because it was a negligible and depressing experience at the movies. Like STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS - two effects-heavy works - the film is designed to be actively experienced, not passively viewed. That’s the sign of great escapist spectacle, and 300 wholeheartedly delivers.
Boy...does it ever.