Advance Review: 300

Category: 300 Reviews | Posted by: stagewomanjen
Article Date: February 12, 2007 | Publication: IGN.com Reviews | Author: Todd Gilchrist
Publication/Article Link:http://movies.ign.com/articles/763/763580p1.html

Zack Snyder creates a masterpiece with this fantastic adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel.

February 12, 2007 - It's truly difficult to resist making epic proclamations about a filmmaker's career after watching something like 300. Director Zack Snyder, the man responsible for a superlative remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, adapts Frank Miller's graphic novel with passion and creativity, proving that classical storytelling will never go out of style — especially if more filmmakers are able to make it look as cool and exciting as this. Combining old-school mythmaking with ultramodern technique, Snyder has crafted a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that is unlike any movie audiences have seen, and in so doing he may have sealed his own fate as a possible redeemer of modern moviemaking.

Gerard Butler plays Leonidas, the wise king of Sparta. Raised with the utmost ideals — honor, duty, glory — Leonidas is a brilliant military strategist and egalitarian champion of personal freedom. So when news arrives from Persia to herald Xerxes' (Rodrigo Santoro) sovereignty over Sparta, he rebuffs the declaration and announces that his countrymen must fight to preserve their way of life. Unfortunately, the Spartan elders honor an ancient and fickle belief system that prohibits Leonidas from challenging the impending Persian hordes.

Fearing for the safety and freedom of his people, Leonidas enlists 300 soldiers -- declared his personal bodyguards -- and mounts a valiant defense against Xerxes and his limitless armies. Meanwhile, his wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), attempts to employ more diplomatic means to solicit support from the Spartan council, even as Theron (Dominic West) poisons its members to her plan from within.

The simplicity of the plot is the film's greatest virtue. Rather than languishing in the details of military strategy or inundating audiences in the subtleties of Spartan politics, director Snyder renders Miller's story in big, broad strokes. For example, the film's opening sequence introduces rather simply the cultural tradition that inspired larger-than-life figures like Leonidas: Great men are born and bred, nurtured in their natural abilities and trained to serve a specific purpose. Indeed, this sequence not only explains everything one needs to know about the hero, but reveals the origins of his masterful battle strategy… not to mention the Spartan philosophical ideals upon which it is based.

At the same time, however, there is a palpable humanity to Leonidas and his men. While they do in some way provide the latest cinematic iteration of Schwarzeneggeresque musclemen — not one of them is built less than Ford tough — they are not without thoughts and feelings, which are applied liberally to their efforts to protect one another and, by extension, their Spartan homeland.

Best of all, Leonidas' relationship with his wife Gorgo offers a rare display of tenderness and devotion that is seldom seen in "guy movies" like this one, and provides some of the film's most profound and lasting emotional underpinnings. Notwithstanding a sex scene that almost surely ranks as one of the hottest and most beautiful in recent memory, theirs is a partnership that reflects mutual understanding and shows the sort of commitment that is to be aspired to in real life as much as on the silver screen.

Thankfully, the acting also plays directly to this seeming juxtaposition between classicism and modernism. Butler, a reliable Russell Crowe-like leading man who hasn't yet enjoyed the success he deserves, finally finds his Maximus in Leonidas. He possesses enough strength and tenderness to satisfy all of the demands of his character, and yet defines the film within terms that will have audiences swooning over his personal stage presence for countless roles to come. As Gorgo, meanwhile, Headey is a terrific adult beauty who conveys credible intelligence as well as smoldering sexuality. The lack of self-consciousness she lends her character — especially when clothed — is far hotter than and sort of make-up for the "prettiness" filmmakers might have found in a more familiar (i.e. commercial) face.

Of course, the only way their performances would have worked is if the material was treated deadly serious, and Snyder exerts masterful control to make sure that each defiant turn and earnest proclamation is absolutely sincere. He choreographs the action in such a way as to inspire awe no matter what his characters are doing, employing slow-motion so freely that it seems more the norm than the 24 frames per second that audiences have become accustomed to. But at the same time, none of these flourishes feel superfluous. Instead, they create the kind of momentum and operatic scope that elevates a tall tale to the stuff of legend.

That said, there are so many painterly images in 300 that it qualifies as the closest thing to "pure cinema" that audiences have come to in quite some time: The silhouette of the Spartan elders' temple against a cloud-stained moon; the spectacle of dead bodies in the shape of a great, gnarled hand reaching out of scorched soil; more than one extended shot of the Spartans laying waste to their adversaries as the camera changes speeds, zooms and shifts focus to keep up; and the pristine and breathtaking shadow of a lone spear as it ascends a stairwell towards its designated target.

Ultimately, the film looks a little bit like a Boris Vallejo print come to life — muscled supermen springing to action to save their oil-painted landscape — and full credit must go to Snyder. But with both this and Dawn of the Dead, he has proven himself a consummate storyteller who can transform convention into cinematic magic… which is why it's with reluctant enthusiasm that we assign him the responsibility of restoring the luster of mainstream movies.

After all, who knows how well Snyder will do moving forward, or what career path he might follow? It seems like his only (or maybe most obvious) predecessor would be Ridley Scott, who broke into the mainstream with a similar sort of genre-movie deconstruction and whose last big commercial success no doubt served as at least a vague template for some of the style on display here. Suffice it to say that Snyder could do worse than follow Scott's career path, rewriting rules and changing the landscape with each new effort. But keep in mind that it took Scott 22 years to follow Alien with a Gladiator, and it took only four for Snyder to go from Dawn to 300.

Ultimately, this film combines an archetypal conflict, an ancient storytelling tradition reaching back as far as the Greeks themselves, and technique that makes it relevant to modern audiences. In other words, it's not clear whether great movie myths are born or bred, but 300 is unequivocally one of them.

5 out of 5 stars.