'300' Australian Review
Category: 300 Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: March 22, 2007 | Publication: IGN.Com (Australia) | Author: Patrick Kolan
Decapitations? Naked women? Killer special effects? Sign us up.
Australia, March 21, 2007 - After years of dodging film adaptations of his work, Frank Miller appears to have opened the floodgates, and to great effect. '300', the screen adaptation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's graphic novel take on the Battle of Thermopylae, is the latest to make the jump; doing so with startling accuracy and arresting violence - everything a fan could hope for.
As the story goes, a force of 300 Spartan warriors took on all the armies aligned with the Persian God-man Xerxes in a bloody conflict that was generally one-sided - the strength of the Spartan spear and swordsmen became legend as they obliterated an overconfident and vast opposition - then their confrontation eventually begins a greater conflict.
The comic series drew critical acclaim for Miller, who also wrote and illustrated his now-infamous 'Sin City' series, which made its theatrical debut in 2005. As an adaptation, '300' director Zack Snyder, who also worked on the screenplay, nails it. This is easily the best adaptation of a comic to screen since 'Sin City'. And so it should be - the 88-page, double spread comic lends itself immediately to the screen, complete with colours from Lynn Varley. It would've been difficult to get this kind of source material drastically wrong - the film was storyboarded from day-one.
We can't give the director full credit. He adapted Miller's vision, who admittedly was heavily inspired by a '60s flick called 'The 300 Spartans'. Miller's work is of a much darker, violent tone; Snyder does his best to replicate almost exactly the rich and extreme contrasts that are the hallmarks of Miller's illustrations. Again, like the process of bringing 'Sin City' to the screen, it is clear from the opening seconds of the film - a simple title screen over the smoke-haze of war - that much care was taken to adapt this work carefully and thoughtfully.
The same level of dedication went into choosing the right cast, and Gerard Butler as the Spartan king Leonidas, is perfection. Sporting a beard and characteristic Greek cropped hair, Butler channels the brooding warrior and gives incredible personality to Miller's vision. His eyes and mouth are given a lot of screen time in extreme close-ups, and his booming cries command attention and respect. It's a character role, yes, but he is perfectly cast and does a great job with a role that could very easily have been trashy and ham-fisted.
Australian actor David Wenham is a scene-stealer as the sometime-narrator of the story. His presence in the cast adds immense credibility to the line-up - though Wenham is no stranger himself to fantastical epics, having starred in the 'The Two Towers' and 'Return of the King', as well as 'Van Helsing'.
Leonidas' wife, portrayed by Lena Headey who was most recently seen in 'The Cave', is an interesting choice. We're not sold on her casting in this role. Although she does her best to portray a steely Spartan woman and Queen of her people, she never really comes across as strong enough to be a truly forceful character. There is an obvious exception to this later in the film, but her delivery of dialogue is a little flat and she just isn't muscular enough for a society raised on athleticism and physical prowess.
Hyper-masculine men and flawless women were central to Spartan culture, and in the space of two hours, you'll see more six-packs than at a frat party. The musculature is emphasised through Snyder's wise decision to play out many action sequences in slow motion. Much has been made of this in the wider media - some claiming overuse, while others believe it allows the filmmaker to emulate the frames in the comic books as closely as possible, by almost halting the progress.
We tend to side with the latter opinion. Snyder chooses his moments - critical blows are highlighted with a liquid-slick slow-motion effect, and it served the obvious purpose of allowing viewers to appreciate the frantic pace and well-choreographed battles, lingering long enough for complexity to be recognised and absorbed. We never once wanted to speed things along - '300''s pacing is fine, if a little long in total run-time.
We hate to admit this, but the dialogue is occasionally hit-and-miss. What worked in comic form might seem like an easy fit for massive Hollywood action, but more than once we were taken aback by overly cheesy dialogue. It's not the fault of the adaptation - or Miller himself - the lines he penned combine modern turns of phrase with what can only be pigeonholed as historical clichés. But while the dud lines aren't disastrous, they stand out against the solid lines by contrast, and what should be poignant mother-and-son moments, or menacing leader-and-underling exchanges, fail to hit the right notes.
Of course, fans will attest that this is a visual film (aren't they all?) and that it's occasionally okay to flake out on the characterisation and acting nuances for a high-impact visual tradeoff. It isn't. It's okay to adapt dialogue if it means that the scene doesn't end up sounding like a Saturday morning cartoon.
That said, sometimes it's easy to get swept up in the carnage - '300' boasts more blood, brutality and amputation than an abattoir. There are moments of subtlety to be found though, and these stand out just as much as the gargantuan battle scenes. Leonidas' parlay with Zeus is a standout; a quiet and subtle moment, where the only giveaway that it's Zeus with whom he is conversing is a bright light in the sky, off camera. Other moments are more impressive in scope, with armies stretching to the horizon in the tradition of Peter Jackson's 'Rings' trilogy.
Perhaps most impressive of all the techniques on display is the use of muted colour and extreme contrast. Again, drawing from the same pool of techniques used in 'Sin City', Snyder manages to replicate the earthy tones, rough textures and exaggeration of the original source material. Eyes are digitally lit, musculature emphasised with deep shading and the overall effect is about as close to Miller's work as cinema can allow.
The score is choral and orchestral - dark themes and foreboding chanting sets the scene. At certain moments of action and triumph, particularly Spartan 'money-shots' of the troop walking tall, a dash of hard rock kicks in, matching themes with the occasional modern turn-of-phrase that Miller worked into his wordplay.
For our money, we think 'Sin City' is probably the better film, but as an adaptation, '300' sticks more closely to the original work - for good and ill. We love it for having that kind of textual integrity and dedication, but we get the feeling that maybe Snyder should've made some minor tweaks - remembering that cinema tells its' most successful tales, not just visually, but with the right dialogue to suit the medium too.