5 Stars

Zak Snyder’s cinematic adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel “300” is operatic, beautiful, violent, visceral, emotional, gorey, poetic and just plain bad ass. I could go on and on with adjectives, but the best way to describe it is “Gladiator” on acid.

“300” is the story of Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, “The Phantom of the Opera”) and his courageous stand at the Battle of Thermopylea in 480 BC. At that battle, Leonidas led just 300 Spartan warriors against over one million troops under the command of Persian King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, “Love Actually”). He proved that it’s not so much how many troops you fight with, but where you fight that can be a deciding factor. As the battle progresses, it becomes clear that it wasn’t whether or not the Spartans won that mattered to them, it was what the battle meant, freedom, that was important.

It’s told as a myth, or a campfire tale. Exaggerated for effect, larger than life characters, stunning visuals emphasize the story, as told through the eyes of battle participant Dilios (David Wenham, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy). Xerxes is portrayed as an eight foot tall behemoth, cruelly lording over his subjects and troops. The strange animals the Persians brought in to the fight (rhinos and elephants) are gigantic monstrosities that strike fear into the hearts of the Spartans. And the traitorous Spartan hunchback who betrays the Spartan weakness to the Persians is a grotesque monster who has no place amongst the chiseled, heroic Spartan warriors.

Zak Snyder showed so much promise with his take on “Dawn of the Dead” in 2004, and after a series of failed or struggling projects, including a remake of “Day of the Dead” and the long awaited “Watchmen” project (now slated for a 2008 release), he comes into his own with an adaptation of Frank Miller’s epic graphic novel.

Snyder took a page from the Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”) book of digital filmmaking, and shot the entire flick against a blue screen. Where other filmmakers have failed to produce competent performances and a compelling story to match the stunning visuals (I’m looking at you George Lucas), Rodriguez and Snyder have been able to craft amazing movies with a visual style unparalleled by any of their colleagues, and are able to construct fascinating and wonderful stories to prove that it’s not just a complete orgy of effects.

When watching this style of filmmaking, I get mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s beautiful, and a few practitioners have been able to do fantastic work with it. On the other hand, if it catches on we could get a bunch of overzealous young filmmakers who won’t take the time to actually craft a watchable movie, and then the style won’t be able to realize its full potential. Here’s hoping competent professionals like Rodriguez and Snyder take the time to perfect it.

Butler is the perfect Leonidas. He exudes the sheer masculinity of the Spartans. He breaks down the complex emotions of the Spartan mind to show the respect he has for his fellow Spartans and the utter disdain he has for the Persians. There’s a deep sense of honor and loyalty exhibited by the Spartan warriors that is heartbreaking when they’re at the final showdown. Dominic West (“The Forgotten”) as the backstabbing and conniving Theron was the perfect foil to that ideal set forth by Leonidas and his warriors.

“300” is a welcome departure from the standard “swords and sandals” epic that enjoyed a brief resurgence with “Gladiator,” but went awry with “Troy” and “Alexander.” It’s a re-visioning of the genre, and it’s a simply fantastic film, in every sense of the word. This is one to watch come awards season next year.


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