Madness? THIS... IS... SPARTA!
The trailers for '300' were simply amazing, perfectly crafted to be full of rousing spectacle and machismo, and the use of 'Just Like You Imagined' by Nine Inch Nails was inspired. It promised an original, visually spectacular, relentless action spectacular - and the final film delivers pretty much as advertised. Based on the comic by Frank Miller, '300' was directed by 'Dawn of the Dead' (2004 remake) helmer Zack Snyder, whose next project is the anticipated / dreaded adaptation of Alan Moore's Watchmen (haven't read it yet! [bows head in shame]). It is the second ultra stylized film, following 'Sin City', that replicates the visual style of its Frank Miller crafted source material.
The story is based on the historical Battle of Thermopylae that took place in the 5th Century BC between the Greeks led by Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and the invading Persians led by King Xerxes I (Rodrigo Santoro). The plot is basic - Leonidas is forced to defend Sparta from an invading horde with only a small contingent of his army because the Spartan priests and oracle forbid war during an ongoing sacred festival. The Spartans, together with a few allies, block a narrow mountain pass and battle against the far superior numbers of the Persians, but suffer minimal losses thanks to their superior training and ability. Meanwhile, Leonidas' Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) attempts to convince the Spartan council to send the army to back Leonidas.
It's no surprise how this story ends - it recounts arguably the most famous last stand in history - but the film isn't really too concerned with plot, apart from the stuff involving Queen Gorgo. Instead, its focus is more on theme, style, and visceral impact. The story is told as a flashback narrated by the only Spartan survivor of the battle, Dilios (David Wenham), who was sent away by Leonidas on the last day to spread the word on their heroic defense of Sparta. This narrative device naturally allows the film to take fantastical liberties and to embellish details.
A large part of the film focuses on building up the Spartans as a near mythical fighting force, demonstrating their complete and utter commitment to creating a nation of warriors who embrace combat in every aspect of their lives, both physical and mental. The Spartans are presented as a sort of idealized notion of mankind, being courageous and noble and loving freedom while also embodying physical perfection. The script enhances this mythic effect by having most of their lines be especially grand and stoic.
Once the milieu and characters established, the rest of the film concerns itself with style and action. The visuals are, as I said, highly stylized with a reddish-orange hue to everything and computer generated environments. These elements are very distinctive and memorable, and the film is very visually arresting, like a living painting. These visuals help to create a distorted world featuring fantastical elements - the Persians are depicted as having deformed mutants and massive beasts in their ranks, and Xerxes himself is a veritable giant.
The action on display is stunning and features incredibly violent and dynamic sequences that cut between slow-mo and ultra-fast repeatedly within long continuous takes, stuff that certainly hasn't been seen before. Snyder prevents the action from becoming stale by frequently changing the adversaries that the Persians throw at the embattled Spartans, and although it still does occasionally feel a little repetitive, the brutal impact of the clashes never really diminishes, right up to the Spartans last stand. The secondary story focusing on Gorgo is less gripping and dabbles with a few political elements that attempt to add some substance and weight to the story. These scenes work to give a breather between the battles, but ultimately go nowhere and only serve to send ambiguous political messages.
There's one performance in this film to write home about, and that's Gerard Butler's. His filmography shows nothing impressive before '300' as far as I can tell, so his work in this comes as quite a surprise, though there were certainly signs of a good performance in the trailers. Butler's Leonidas is imposing and commands attention whenever he's on screen, and it's easy to believe that he inspires the devotion of his men. He's fearless, brash and belligerent, but he's also contemplative and burdened by his responsibility to Sparta.
And then there's the physicality. This applies to all of the guys playing the Spartans; their commitment to the roles in terms of their physical appearance is almost worthy of the characters that they're playing. These guys look and move like the greatest warriors on the planet, and are absolutely convincing. David Wenham and Lena Headey are alright in their roles, with Wenham's narration being quite good even if it does intrude on proceedings a little too often. An honourable mention for Rodrigo Santoro, whose Xerxes is menacing and downright creepy.
'300' is a unique cinematic experience, one that probably won't be to everyone's taste thanks to its proclivity for copious bloodletting, nudity, and graphic sex. For those less sensitive souls it represents an entertaining and engrossing action fest, full of visual splendour and thrilling battle sequences (even if they don't always feel as epic as other recent medieval battle scenes). I expected to be entertained, and I was, and doubtless will be again when I revisit the film.