Part requiem, part enquiry, but all action, this scathing World War II epic is set during the costly 1944 Allied invasion of Italy.
In Ancient Greece, a group of 300 Spartan warriors are all that stand against an invincible army. A vivid, bloodthirsty adaptation of the graphic novel by 'Sin City' creator Frank Miller.
The legendary Battle of Thermopylae may have first made it to the screen in 1962's The 300 Spartans, but this new cinematic incarnation of the story is an historical epic unlike any other. The latest example of 'virtual studio' filmmaking, where actors are shot against blue screens and sparse sets while the surrounding environments are generated through CGI, it's a stylised action adventure that takes the sword and sandal genre and pushes it in an exaggerated, dream-like direction. Transferring the dynamic visuals of the original graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynne Varley to the big screen, in a similar manner to previous Miller adaptation Sin City, the result is a delirious, turbo-charged roar of a movie that plays like Spartacus on bizarre drugs.
Set in 480 BC, the story kicks off with an introduction to the kingdom of Sparta, where a civilisation centred around combat has created some of the finest warriors ever seen, and is ruled over by the fiercely honourable King Leonidas (Butler). When a messenger arrives from the tyrannical god-king Xerxes, telling Leonidas that Sparta will be the next kingdom to fall unless it surrenders, the king's immediate reaction is to kick the news bearer and his bodyguards down the nearest well.
Unfortunately, he soon finds Xerxes has bribed Sparta's politicians and religious elders, and thanks to this, Leonidas is now forbidden by law from unleashing the country's army against Xerxes. Still refusing to surrender, the king takes 300 volunteers and marches towards the Hot Gates at Thermopylae, a narrow cliff pass that's also the only route into Sparta for any invading army. Here, it doesn't matter that Leonidas's forces are massively outnumbered, and as Xerxes' army arrives, the fighting skills of the 300 Spartans are soon being tested in a series of gigantic confrontations with near-unstoppable opponents.
Right from the outset, the film makes occasional nods towards accuracy and realism, but is mostly happy to abandon these elements in favour of creating a truly mythological version of the battle. The whole film is like an exaggerated remix of reality, from the leperous, sex-crazed priests to the troll-like berserkers and inhuman 'Immortals' in Xerxes' army. Combining all this with the graphic novel's imagery, and director Zack Snyder's near-expressionist approach to the action, the results make recent attempts at the historical genre like Troy or King Arthur look pathetically feeble by comparison.
Once the combat kicks off, it's a symphony of breathtakingly gory action, as bare flesh is punctured by spears, heads are lopped off in close-up and the screen is regularly showered in blood. Coming across like a blend of modern action movies and the heavily stylised world of 1920s-era silent cinema, 300 doesn't reach the sadistic excesses of Robert Rodriguez's take on Sin City, and isn't quite as rigorous in following the original graphic novel, yet still perfectly captures the book's energetic widescreen flavour.
In fact, it captures it too accurately, as Miller's habit of making his characters into larger-than-life archetypes means that while there are some great performances - particularly from Butler who commands the screen as Leonidas - the characters also come off as one-note. The Spartans are fierce, loyal, and unafraid, never bending in the face of superior forces, and laughing off injuries, most notably, when Dilios (Wenham) says "It's only an eye, my lord. The gods saw fit to furnish me with a spare." However, there's not much depth to their characters beyond their unyielding sense of loyalty and brotherhood, while the villains are all perverse, grotesque and irredeemably evil, from Rodrigo Santoro's megalomaniacal Xerxes to Dominic West's slippery politician Theron.
As a result, 300 dazzles the senses, but it doesn't engage the emotions. Even the quieter plotline involving Queen Gorgo (Headey), not in the original graphic novel, is an awkward attempt to give a female perspective on a story that's soaked in testosterone. While there's a certain amount of accidental homo-eroticism thanks to most of the male cast being half-naked for the entirety of the film, 300 does avoid toppling into camp - although the sex-scene between Leonidas and Gorgo seems to have been thrown in purely to ensure nobody thought Leonidas was anything other than 100 per cent all-man.
The stylised nature of the movie can backfire, especially with the hunchback Ephialtes (Tiernan), who never looks like anything other than an actor wrapped in a mountain of latex, while the determination to stick closely to the original text creates a handful of awkward moments. There are gigantic differences between comic book storytelling and movie storytelling, excessive narration, which works perfectly in the graphic novel, is intrusive when transferred into the film.
Ultimately 300 is a powerful and distinctive movie, even if it may raise some political eyebrows thanks to its portrayal of honourable Caucasians battling against monstrous hordes from the Middle East. Like the frequently misinterpreted 'Lord Of The Rings', however, the Battle of Thermopylae is the kind of blank myth you can project multiple meanings onto, and 300 is the first historical action movie that's come anywhere close to equalling the ferocious battles in Peter Jackson's trilogy.
A blood-soaked, aggressive tale of heroism and courage against all odds, 300 makes up in energy and eye-popping visuals for what it might lack in subtlety.
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