Based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 is a highly stylized re-imagination of the Battle of Thermopylae, an historic clash between a group of Greek city-states and the invading Persian Empire, circa 480 BC. In this incarnation of the tale, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) leads a contingent of 300 elite Spartan soldiers against a million-man armada after he and his Queen (Lena Headey) refuse to bow down in subservience to Persia and its egotistical ruler Xerxes. Facing impossible odds, Leonidas and his men use cunning and sheer determination to stand before the onslaught of a virtually limitless enemy.
With its artistic vision, energetic performances, and abundance of action, 300 is the type of movie that has been finding well-deserved praise amongst professional critics and fans alike. Visually, the film is stunning as it maintains its signature look from beginning to end. Due to its embracing of its comic book roots, the feature has drawn many comparisons to Miller's other adaptation, Sin City. But whereas Sin City indulged in solid, sharply contrasting black and white and gave off a sketchbook vibe, 300 feels more like a painting derived from a palette of earth and crimson: it is populated by browns and muted gold, with only the red capes of the Spartans taking vibrant exception.
Naysayers may criticize 300's historical inaccuracies and melodramatic bravado. But the beauty of the film's setup is that it is told as an epic fable explicitly recounted by a Spartan storyteller charged with inspiring his kinsmen with his recollection of Leonidas' heroic deeds. This small but significant device gives both the internal storyteller and the movie itself great dramatic license--the villains are monstrous abominations with outrageous numbers, the heroes are larger than life figures whose conquests are superhuman, and the battles are legendary campaigns that defy all odds. Exaggerations are not only acceptable, but they are encouraged as a way to instill patriotism and rally the troops.
Action takes center stage in this grand production, and those seeking big-time battles will find no shortage of melees and mayhem. The Spartans vanquish droves of foes with uncanny efficiency and measured brutality. The fight choreography is often graceful, with one move flowing into the next in long, drawn out sequences. The camera slows down and speeds up at just the right moments to maximize the eye candy. And as the movie progresses, the enemies grow more fearsome and more grotesque, and it becomes easy for the audience to get swept up in the valiant desperation of the heroes.
Gerard Butler steals the show in the lead role. As Spartan leader King Leonidas, he is shockingly unrecognizable from past performances in movies like The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula 2000, belting out over-the-top lines with thunderous fury and inspiring soldiers more effectively than most of his real-world counterparts. His rallying cry of "tonight we dine in hell" has quickly become a fan-favorite, and will no doubt be a permanent fixture in the lexicon of cinematic one-liners. And as the alpha male amongst an elite cadre of alpha males, Leonidas spearheads the battles by laying down a jaw-dropping amount of carnage, slaughtering legion after legion of enemies.
Lena Headey, who remains on our all-time list of fun interviewees for her candor and sly humor, makes for a strong and able Spartan Queen. In a story that could have easily been completely dominated by testosterone and a patriarchal hierarchy, she portrays a character who easily holds her own with the boys, first by establishing the revered status of the women in their society (she brags early on that only Spartan women are fit to give birth to Spartan warriors), then later by sticking it to the man in cold-blooded vengeance.
300 is a visual extravaganza loaded with blockbuster action and sharpened with some killer creativity. But perhaps its greatest achievement is that it actually lives up to the hype of its previews. Those looking for an epic adventure should not be disappointed.
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