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Action doesn't retreat in '300'

Category: 300 News
Article Date: March 10, 2007 | Publication: Rocky Mountain News | Author: Bob Denerstein

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Visionary fury rules battlefield in adaptation of graphic novel

Being a Spartan was no picnic. According to the movie 300, which focuses on the battle between Spartans and Persians at Thermopylae, Spartan warriors trained for battle from an early age.

To keep their fighting stock pure, Spartans discarded deformed infants. They also ranted endlessly about manhood, smiling at the thought of finding a beautiful death on the battlefield. And judging by the actors who play Spartans in 300, they all had abs worthy of Michelangelo.

To create its dark, violent atmosphere, 300 draws on a graphic novel by the brilliant Frank Miller, who also wrote Sin City and The Dark Knight Returns. In bringing Miller's work to the screen, director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) mounts a truly amazing spectacle.

Snyder gives his movie the encompassing look and feel of a graphic novel. Perhaps because he shot the actors in front of digitally concocted backgrounds, Snyder is able to sustain an otherworldly quality that perfectly suits the movie's lurid material.

Additional credit goes to cinematographer Larry Fong for devising a lighting scheme - a mixture of saturated and desaturated colors - that reinforces the movie's aura of unreality. This is a movie in which a lurching Spartan body substitutes for all but the most cursory character development, and when a female oracle writhes, she's certain to reveal a bare breast.

To call the movie an orgy of violence, then, isn't far off the mark. The film's story centers on Sparta's King Leonidas (a heavily buffed Gerard Butler). With support from his queen (Lena Headley), Leonidas heads off to fight the Persians with 300 valiant men, this despite the fact that a corrupted oracle has advised him against taking arms. The Persian forces, by the way, number in the hundreds of thousands.

The maniacal Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) leads the Persians, who employ ferocious masked warriors called Immortals, as well as supersized elephants and rhinos. In case that's not enough, Xerxes orders wave after wave of additionally fierce warriors into the fray. When the Persians blot out the sun with a hail of arrows, the movie has the same kind of awesome battle heft as the Lord of the Rings movies.

Snyder, who may be familiar with Asian martial-arts movies, employs a variety of camera techniques to convey the horror and exhilaration of battle. Fair to say that when 300 sticks to the battlefield, which is most of the time, it gleams with visionary fury. Beheadings abound and blood splatters as the Spartans, who fight by forming a phalanx, chop the enemy to bits.

Trouble lurks when Leonidas rejects Ephiates (Andrew Tiernan), a deformed Spartan who wants to fight but can't raise his shield high enough to become part of a phalanx. This leads Ephiates to betrayal. In case you've forgotten what happened at Thermopylae, I won't go any further.

Battle-heavy to be sure, 300 makes some room for the intrigue that developed among Spartan politicians, most notably the duplicitous Theron (Dominic West).

I suppose if one were grading on style alone, 300 would close in on "A" territory, but the movie also has a script. The dialogue tends to be portentous, and the story can be read as an endorsement of the supermacho Spartan ethos: The Spartans apparently use liberty and equality as buzzwords. They're warriors who don't seem to have much else going for them.

And if you're inclined to look at the movie as an allegory - these days Persians tend to live in Iran - your head may start spinning. Make your own judgments about whether some of Leonidas' speeches resemble any you've heard from contemporary politicians.

It's probably worth mentioning Butler, last seen in Phantom of the Opera. He gives Leonidas a near-maniacal zeal. Look into Butler's blazing eyes and you'll believe that Leonidas would rather die than spend one minute wondering why he didn't.

300 definitely pumps you up. Don't be surprised if you hear war whoops in the parking lot. The Spartan motto - never retreat, never surrender - seems to have influenced the movie's pacing, which doesn't always allow sufficient time to build tension.

Maybe it doesn't matter. Snyder ably re-creates the world of Miller's novel, which seems as much a product of robust visual fantasy as of dusty historical research. There's nothing timid about 300: Snyder floods the screen with gore and glory, holding nothing in reserve.


Spartans vs. Persians at Thermopylae.


Rating:R n Running time: 117 minutes

A graphic epic

Why we may see more movies made in the same style as 300:

The problem: Warner Bros. was burned by past sword-and- sandal epics Troy and Alexander, which cost a bunch and made little back.

The challenge: Make a movie about 300 Spartans who stood against a quarter-million-man Persian army inexpensively.

The solution: Shoot the actors in a converted locomotive factory against a blank blue screen in tax-break haven Montreal. Then fill in ancient Greece digitally. "This movie was made at a third of the (usual) cost of those movies, and that was part of it," says Bernie Goldmann, a producer of the film. "But it was also to make something that was going to ignite an audience and bring them into that world."

The inspiration: The filmmakers stuck closely to Frank Miller's graphic novel. "I would say 90 percent of the scenes in the movie are from the graphic novel, and the dialogue as well," says director Zack Snyder.Source: Los Angeles Daily News


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