343 – 300

Remember those commercials for the US Marines, wherein some ripped young recruit is climbing a mountain, and then he almost falls as he reaches the summit, so he reaches out with a muscular arm and, gritting his teeth and emitting some sort of war cry, he reaches for the mountain and hoists himself up? That’s sort of how the entire two hours of 300: men screaming as they stab, fillet, garrote, gut, and impale their enemies on pointy things. It takes two hours because there are so many enemies, and because they’re using spears and swords instead of guns.

300 is loosely based on a real-life event, the 480 BC defense by a small band of Spartan soldiers of their homeland from a marauding Persian army, led by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). The movie is more directly based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the battle itself, so some liberties are taken, but more importantly the use of the comic as the basis allows the blood and gore to be shown in an almost-surrealistic format, thus enabling the normal (read: not bloodthirsty) viewer to enjoy the film without feeling guilt at seeing so much mayhem.

King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) has a tough decision to make. An emissary from Xerxes meets him and tells him that Sparta must bend its knee to its new ruler. Leonidas will have none of this, and soon the messenger and his companions are thrown down a deep pit. Okay, that was an easy decision. Now Leonidas must decide whether to wait for Xerxes’ army or to take the fight to the edge of the sea, meeting the enemy there. The trouble is, Sparta is a society with touches of democracy: in order to go to war, Leonidas must get approval from the Council, which isn’t inclined to give it. This does not stop our hero-king.

The last time I saw an adaptation of a Frank Miller graphic novel, I was extremely unimpressed – Sin City, I thought, was terrible both technically and creatively. But 300 is different; the blood, which is omnipresent, is stylized, wonderfully imagined, and incredibly detailed, even on a ten-year-old, 27-inch TV set. You can literally see individual drops of blood as they fall from each wound! Some of you are already shaking your heads – “Um, that’s not a good thing, seeing that!” – but you’re wrong! Or, you’re not wrong, just not the intended audience for 300. The movie, particularly the battle scenes, can be best compared to the fight scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1 in which Uma Thurman takes on the Crazy 88. In that scene, Thurman’s Beatrice slices and dices through minions after minions, lopping off limbs with aplomb; it’s much the same here in 300, and in each scene the violence is raised (or lowered) to an appropriate cartoonish level.

Butler gives a truly commanding performance – perhaps on par with Russell Crowe’s turn as Maximus in Gladiator or Mel Gibson’s in Braveheart, a true, fearless leader who is well prepared to die to save his country and his land. Leonidas is terrifyingly strong and courageous, an imposing figure even in the eyes of Xerxes, who fancies himself a king-god (at the time, the Persian army was the largest in the world). Leonidas must inspire his countrymen not only to fight for their families and homes but also to follow him to their certain deaths. I mean, come on – 300 soldiers against tens of thousands? It’s not an obvious victory. Butler is truly up to the test as the tenacious warrior king, a man who would rather die than be subjugated – a fact that eludes Xerxes until the battles are nearly over.

On one level, too, this is a chick flick. I mean, every male actor is bare chested, and he’s totally cut. (The actors had to work out using some pretty intense, tortuous methods to get those six-pack abs.) So if you’re of the female persuasion and like well-built men, this is a movie for you. Sure, they stab each other a lot, so that might put you off, but look! Half-naked men! You gotta love that, right? And for the men, there’s sweet, sweet death of numerous characters, some named, mostly not. In fact, according to IMDb, 585 deaths occur in the movie! Sweet indeed.

While Leonidas and his 300 battle to the death, a battle of words takes place back at home. Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) tries valiantly to persuade the Council to send the full Spartan army – Leonidas wasn’t permitted to take them, obviously, since the Council hadn’t granted permission for war – to help back up their king. To do this, she must work her way around the conniving Theron (Dominic West, who looks a lot like Harry Hamlin and acts like Han Solo gone way bad). And that’s fun and all, and Headey is wonderful – and gorgeous and wise – but thankfully these scenes are short and small in number. The battle scenes are the real draw! HA-OH!

Although the violence may turn some people off, those who like that sort of thing will be enthralled at its exquisite detail and poetic beauty. Butler is so superb, you want to leap into your TV and follow him to the ends of the Earth.

***

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