Gerard Butler as King Leonidas
Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo
Dominic West as Theron
David Wenham as Dilios
Vincent Regan as Captain
Michael Fassbender as Stelios
Tom Wisdom as Astinos
Andrew Pleavin as Daxos
Andrew Tiernan as Ephialtes
Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes
Giovani Cimmino as Pleistarchos
Stephen McHattie as Loyalist
Greg Kramer as Ephor #1
Alex Ivanovici as Ephor #2
Kelly Craig as Oracle Girl

Directed by Zack Snyder

Not content with merely bringing the visuals of Frank Miller’s amazing historic epic to the screen verbatim, Zack Snyder actually improves upon them, using his equally sick imagination and a solid cast to sell this amazing story of the mighty Spartans.

King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler) leads 300 men to the Hot Gates at Thermopylae to protect his city from thousands of advancing Persian soldiers sent by King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) to destroy Sparta. At the same time, Leonidas’ wife Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) tries to convince the city’s council to send more soldiers to his aid.

One always hopes when a graphic novel is adapted from the page to the screen that it’s done by someone who understands and appreciates the original source material. That’s certainly the case with Zack Snyder, who understands the appeal of Frank Miller’s words and visuals as well as Robert Rodriguez did when he co-directed “Sin City.” While the finite story of “300” might not be as strong an original work as Miller’s “Sin City,” it has the benefits of being a historic war epic, a genre that’s thrived in cinema from “Ben Hur” to “Gladiator” and “Troy.” Filtered through Frank Miller’s warped imagination, it becomes a very different beast, though non-comic reading movie lovers might not find it nearly as foreign as “Sin City,” “Hellboy” or other graphic novel adaptations.

It takes some time for things to get going, as we’re shown King Leonidas’ rigorous upbringing as Sparta’s warrior king and the events that lead to him declaring war on Persian king Xerxes’ approaching army. After being warned by the Spartan council and the oracles that going to war would mean death, Leonidas decides he’ll only need 300 men to fend off the advancing Persian hordes by stationing them strategically at a mountain impasse. Leonida and his men are indeed mighty and strong warriors, but they also have a cocky machismo that leads to their undoing when they underestimate a lowly hunchback named Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan).

It’s always puzzled me why a filmmaker might want to make their movie look like Frank Miller’s artwork, since it’s so extreme in style with very little basis in reality. Considering how stunning Snyder’s film looks from beginning to end, it’s obvious that there’s something there. It doesn’t take long to adjust to the muted color scheme used to recreate Lynn Varley’s color scheme from the books, giving the movie a distinctive look of fire tones as the Spartan’s bright red capes leap out at you from the yellow, orange and tan backgrounds. (The blend of real objects and computer-generated images is almost indiscernible.) Though it’s obvious that Snyder is never truly going for realism, the cartoonish nature sometimes takes away from the experience, whether it’s the cheesy-looking wolf Leonidas faces as a boy or the flawed make-up on Ephialtes and the giant Immortal, which look even worse when put through the film’s coloring process.

As is often the case with historic war epics, the battle scenes are the movie’s high point, each one being more outlandish and outrageous than the last. The over-the-top nature of Miller’s original work is taken even further as the blood flies freely in scenes of cartoon violence that makes the sword fight in Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 1” seem tame. When Snyder perfectly recreates Miller’s panel of a Spartan soldier leaping towards a whip-wielding Persian to slice his arm off, you can’t help but shout “Yeah!” And there are many moments that are just as entertaining. What’s surprising is that some of the coolest fights and creatures aren’t even taken from the graphic novel, though everything added by Snyder fits right into Miller’s vision while showing what’s missing from in-between the panels. It’s amazing what Snyder’s introduction of movement and 3-dimensionality brings to Miller’s panels, especially when you go back and look at the graphic novel and realize how many of Miller’s shots have been improved upon.

Those expecting non-stop action and violence may be let-down by the amount of dialogue and character development, which might not have worked if Snyder didn’t cast actors who could pull off Miller’s lofty words, particularly David Wenham’s Dilios who narrates the tale. Gerard Butler drives the movie forward as he does his army, channeling parts of Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe to pull off Leonidas’ unquenchable Spartan ego. At times, the movie gets a bit too “I Claudius” with the actors uttering every line as if it was Shakespeare, but it allows for a number of strong dialogue-driven scenes. Leonidas’ face-to-face encounter with Rodrigo Santoro’s Xerxes is terrific, as is Gorgo “negotiating” with Dominic West’s Theron, a despicable member of Sparta’s counsel who takes advantage of the king’s absence. Snyder gets points for giving Lena Headey’s Gorgo a bigger role in the film, and Santoro and West both give great turns as the type of movie antagonists you’ll love to root against.

Snyder’s musical collaborator Tyler Bates understands the genre as well as he does horror, creating a huge orchestral score complete with what sounds like a 500-person chorus. When it’s time for them to catch their breath, he without missing a beat kicks into a bit of heavy metal guitar pyrotechnics that would make Rammstein proud. Small things like that are what make you realize how well Snyder understands his (and Miller’s) mostly male audience.

The Bottom Line:
“300” sometimes suffers the same problems of other historic war epics—does anyone really want or need to see 300 well-toned Spartans standing around talking?—Snyder perfectly captures the look and feel of Miller’s original work with a movie that is fun, exciting and sick without ever losing sight of the story or characters. If you’re into movies like “Braveheart” and “Gladiator,” this one stands amongst them in a way that belies its “comic book” roots.

(Make sure to stick around once it’s over for some of the coolest blood-splattering end credits you’ve ever seen.)

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Tuesday: Apr. 7, 2020


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