No, not the Michigan State basketball team in March – this Spartan experience bathes the screen with war while slashing away box office records last weekend with a 70 million dollar plus opening. Loosely based on Frank Miller's 1998 graphic novel series 300 (Miller was himself inspired by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans), the plot follows the Spartans’ homeland defense against invading Persians.
300 delivers a memorable musical score and the standard cast of accomplished British/Scottish actors (all with decidedly darkened features), capable of delivering emotional pleas and tirades. Their dialogue/narration only touches on history, like referring to the 300 Spartans as “descendants of Hercules” without any specific dates or obvious timelines, which are quickly mentioned in some dialogue scenes.
Persian King Xerxes, played by Rodrigo Santoro (Lost television series, Love Actually) leads an army of 100,000 plus, including “the immortals” who have a martial arts-like fighting style. The voice-altered Santoro makes his presence known as a harsh, gloating leader who seeks every advantage possible. “I grant pleasures for I am kind,” he says while trying to sway a key character to gain a strategic battle advantage.
The world's first democracy rises from this seemingly impossible challenge as Spartan King Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler (Lara Croft and the Cradle of Life, Phantom of the Opera) bravely defends his people. Like in Apollo 13 and Titanic, most audiences know how this war ends, so it's the journey that becomes paramount as each protagonist’s redeeming values shine creating the first hopeful rays of sunshine through evil’s dark clouds.
“A new age has come, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it,” says Leonidas who demonstrates great care for Spartans as a group and individually, a backbone of any democracy.
Leonidas’ Captain played by Vincent Regan (Troy, Unleashed) strikes a memorable emotional tone as a personal tragedy exemplifies each warrior’s dichotomy between his family/personal desires and duty for the good of all. David Wenham (Van Helsing, Lord of the Rings) plays Dilios, another faithful Spartan soldier who also serves as the film’s narrator.
Lena Headey (The Cave, Waterland) plays Leonida’s wife, Queen Gorgo, who provides strong support for her husband and wisely represents “voices that can’t be heard” in the local government. “Let your choices reflect their bravery,” she pleads to the all male regime, including the conniving Theron, played by Dominic West (The Forgotten, The Wire television series).
The beginning sets the tone of a harsh world where babies are discarded if not deemed strong and then become “baptized in the fire of combat.” Once you understand the warrior point of view, filmmakers quickly delve into Leonidas’ important progression of decision-making. Leonidas trusts reason instead of the corrupt, creature-like Ephors who’ve always approved every major Spartan military campaign, and their future telling “oracles”.
Once the battle begins, director Zack Snyder creates some amazing on-screen action, which definitely speaks louder than words in this one hour and 56 minute epic, full of graphic violence, including a stab through the bicep and several beheadings.
Filmmakers use high speed-low speed combinations in several of the fighting sequences, creating an effective emotional window that puts the audience in the heat of the battle.
300 serves as a decent remediation of previous battle films like Gladiator, Braveheart and even Hero while touching on predictable themes of democracy, tyranny, materialism, self sacrifice and honor.
This film was shot in 60 days, mostly in Montreal, Canada, and involved several special effects green screen shots (actually mostly blue screens) blending the real actors and pseudo sets. After filming ended, the film required almost one full year of post-production. Recommended and rated R for graphic battles, nudity, violence and sexuality, including a forced act, which filmmakers rightly portray as an ugly act without any beautiful visuals.