Monday, March 12, 2007

300 / **** (R)

King Leonidas: Gerard Butler
Queen Gorgo: Lena Headey
Theron: Dominic West
Dilion: David Wenham
Captain: Vincent Regan
Ephialtes: Andrew Tiernan
Xerxes: Rodrigo Santoro

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Zack Snyder. Written by Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and LynnVarley. Running time: 117 min. Rated R (for graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity).

A flash of lightning. A thunder clap. The crack of bone against bone. The rawness of the snow. The grizzly, growling, foaming mouth of a wolf. A boy in the cold. Men unlike any ever seen before. Rippling, sweating muscle. The splatter of blood against cold steel. Sweat and sex. And the rank odor of death.

Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel “300” is a cinematic montage of stunning proportions. Retelling the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., where 300 Spartan soldiers were said to have taken on an army of one million Persians, “300” is a visual and visceral massacre of traditional cinematic sensibilities. Walking out of the theater afterward, I could practically taste the blood of fallen soldiers on my own lips.

There is nothing about this film that is intended to be a realistic depiction of events. It is extravagantly overdone and richly satisfying in its execution. Snyder (“Dawn of the Dead”) turns blood into a solid object here and transforms the film’s actors into gods. Never have the people on a movie screen seemed so much larger than life than they do here. I mean that literally; they appear to be larger than the same actors in a different film would be. How did they do that?

Much of what they did here was achieved through digital effects. The men look impossibly well built, and the women are sultry goddesses. The characters’ eyes pop out on the screen and you can feel their power over their world. These are people who control their lives with brute force and harsh honesty.

Gerard Butler (“The Phantom of the Opera”) plays the mighty Spartan King Leonidas, who leads his best soldiers into battle. He is a perfect specimen of male physique, as are all the Spartan soldiers. I don’t think there is any way they could have achieved the appearance of all those perfect bodies without the help of visual effects. It is intimidating just to look at these men, to see them all gathered together in one place. Even the shots with only one or two of them could make you fear for your personal physical safety. The Arcadians who help them in their stand against the Persians look like bankers and computer nerds next to the Spartans, when even they are actually very fit compared to most modern men.

Lena Headey (“The Brothers Grimm”) is the perfect match for Leonidas as his Queen Gorgo. Her striking beauty gives her as much strength as his muscular perfection. She makes it easy to believe a woman could fend for herself in this brutal world of testosterone-fueled violence.

I suppose the film could be criticized for its cardboard treatment of its characters, but in-depth analysis of meaning and motivation is not what this film is about. It is about survival in a humanity that is just as wild and vicious as the deepest jungle. There is great power in how the material is presented visually, which needs little support from the script or the performances. But the script and performances are exactly what they need to be, just as overwrought as the visual spectacle they chaperone.

Snyder gives the audience a virtual visual feast of images on which to gorge. From the female oracle that thrashes about in prophetic sexual ecstasy to the charging giant rhino beast felled with a single blow, there is hardly a frame in this film that couldn’t be hung on a wall and found to be an exceptional work of art on its own. Unlike most historical battle epics, this is not a story of mere humans in mêlée; there are beasts and mutants that seem to have ascended from some plane of hell. Even King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, ABC’s “Lost”) looms above the perfect Leonidas, suggesting that he just may be the deity he claims to be.

As with most costumed sword-and-sandal epics, the level of violence in “300” is vast. Many heads are removed from their bodies. Snyder treats the violence with the greatest amount of visual glorification. He utilizes slow motion to the point where he nearly stops the images, giving the audience a chance to study every detail of grit and gore. And when a body falls, his camera captures the full weight of death in the way the muscles ripple in lifeless relaxation.

“300” is certainly not a film for everyone. The action is exaggerated to a quease-inducing state. But it is also a wonderful reflection of a new movement in cinematic excellence. The visual style of “300” is like an evolutionary step that cinema has been in the process of making, because of the efforts of such film makers as Robert Rodriguez, David Fincher, and Quentin Tarantino, toward becoming a more overtly visual medium. A medium where visual style replaces traditional dramatic forms of emotional exposition, where the style itself becomes the vehicle and character of the emotional impact for the cinematic experience. It is quite literally awe inspiring.

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