directed by Zach Snyder
starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headley, David Newham
The battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is the stuff that comic books and Hollywood films are made of. The battle was important because 300 Spartans, led by their own superhero, the defiant King Leonidas, made a valiant stand against tyranny that eventually united all of Ancient Greece against the mightiest power on the globe at that time, the Persians.
Because Thermopylae remains such a rich tale of heroism, democracy and the power of determination, it only makes that it should become the subject of first a graphic novel by Sin City scribe Frank Miller and now a thrilling new action film, The 300.
The journey of The 300 from page to screen is a short one. Originally envisioned as a stylish and potent graphic novel, it was perfect material for an idea-strapped Hollywood looking to latch onto the next big comic book action film.
That’s where director and co-screenwriter Zach Snyder steps in. Through his care and precision, and a whole lot of help from the CGI and effects crews, he has transformed Miller’s bloody, gutsy and gory epic into an almost seamless cinematic translation.
The movie opens as tensions between Xerxes, King of Persia, who commands the greatest army of his time (and uses it to expand his empire), and Leonidas, King of Sparta, are escalating. It a perfect setting for a film, Xerxes, the bad guy bent on conquering the world, versus Leonidas, a wise and passionate leader who refuses to acquiesce to tyranny. Leonidas’ dispatching of a Persian emissary early in the film moves the two sides inescapably closer to all-out war.
This is a bad thing for Greece because Persia is a superpower with a well-trained army of the finest soldiers from the Orient and Asia Minor. Needless to say, the Persians are not very nice; they enslave populations, level cities and decimate everything that stands in their way. The Spartans, on the other hand, are no slouches either. As citizens of the mightiest and fightiest city-state of Ancient Greece, they fight first and ask questions later. The Spartans’ strength lies in their superior training regimen and also in the fact that they are fiercely proud and loyal to their families and country.
After refusing an offer of “peaceful” surrender to Xerxes’ army, Leonidas turns his attention to the coming war. The only things standing in his way are a wimpy Spartan Council and some outdated oracles who forbid the King to go to war with Persia. Angered by their inaction, Leonidas takes 300 of his best soldiers and heads to the Aegean coast to meet the Persians head on in one of bloodiest and most valiant campaigns in history.
The 300 stars Gerald Butler as the majestic Leonidas. Despite some choppy and cheesy dialogue, Butler brings a mix of superhero cool, heroic grace and humor to the role of the Spartan King. Butler plays Leonidas as part gladiator, part Patton protagonist with great effect. He carefully balances all of Leonidas’ complexities, his pride, his duty to country and fellow soldiers and his steadfast belief in a united Greece. All of this makes Butler a lot of fun to watch onscreen.
Lena Headey plays Gorgo, Leonida’s wife. Headey, an actress on the rise (who will be seen next in The Shooter), matches Butler step for step with onscreen charisma as the bold and brash queen of Sparta. Her character is important because she propels Leonidas’ acts and deeds. As a result, Headey is rock solid as the glue holding most of the story’s emotional tension together. Headey brings a nuanced combination of vulnerable femininity and warrior roughness to the role that compliments the sometimes acerbic Butler as Leonidas.
The cast is rounded out by fine performances from David Wenham as the rugged Delios, a loyal supporter of Leonidas, and Dominic West, who provides a magnificently dastardly turn as the conniving Theron.
Despite these terrific performances, The 300 uses over 1300 effects shots to provide the movie with a much-needed adrenaline rush. The action scenes, although inaccurate at times from a historical perspective, are a sumptuous feast of gore and grit that maintains the tight pacing of the film without watering down the drama. Snyder’s precise handling of drama and action creates an ironic balance in this epic story about chaos and anarchy. He also manages to ratchet up the emotions enough to make audiences care about the fate of the doomed combatants locked in this bitter struggle.
The 300 delivers everything that people love about movies, it’s got action, romance, big battles and great effects. It’s a well-acted, mesmerizing epic that harnesses every classic Hollywood cliché- democracy versus tyranny, love versus fate, bedlam versus stability- while giving a nod and a nudge to the best thrilling, swashbuckling epics of days past. It’s also a whole lot of fun.