Before there was a ragtag band of Rebel Alliance warriors fighting Palpatine's evil Galactic Empire against overwhelming odds, 300 brave Spartans faced the vast Persian army of King Xerxes – and their gutsy stand has reverberated throughout thousands of years of human history since then.
If ever there were an epic story, this is it - and it's true, apparently.
Director Zack Snyder's take on Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's graphic novel is equally graphic, in that there's plenty of splattering blood and severed body parts, but it's also a stylish and involving story about a group of people for whom honor, duty and the service of something larger than themselves is Job One (sorry, Ford!).
Sounds like just the movie for self-absorbed times such as ours….
We have no idea how accurate 300 is historically – though the eminent historians the producers have included in the DVD's supplementary materials (including Dr. Victor Davis Hanson) hint that it may be more accurate than not. But regardless of that, it's a classic adventure that focuses on the best of what makes us human (regardless of what you think of the Spartans), where people who know full well that they're marching off to their deaths do it anyway, damning the consequences because they know what they do is right and necessary.
Our hero is Leonidas (Gerard Butler), the Spartan king who leads his proud band of 300 to that certain death. He fights for his people, their land and their freedom and he will not bend lo the forces of Hades whirl around him. Accompanying him are the best and brightest of a land that prided itself on its strength, both physical and moral.
Left behind are the women and children, the politicians and the bulk of the mighty Spartan army – the latter of which must remain home because it has been decreed that the army not take on the God-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), at least not right now. But Leonidas knows they have to do it now – 'cause that's when the Persians are coming, not later - and there's not much point in waiting if it's going to be too late when finally you get around to it.
So into the breach march the 300, to meet and hold the Persians at a narrow mountain pass called Thermopylae (which apparently means "Hot Gates" in Greek – and they're about to get a lot hotter!).
And we get to see it all, in a beautifully stylized and computerized rendering that may be drenched in blood and ultraviolence, but which is still quite lovely to behold. The 300 stand in stark contrast to the thousands and thousands of Persians massing against them, mighty fusillades of their arrows flying through the air toward the Spartans in a digitally-created rain of death against which you'd think no one could stand.
Yet the Spartans not only stand, they prevail initially, through battle scenes that capture the visceral horror and, yes, the camaradarie and glory, that real life warfare must have. There are places in which you can almost feel the battle in your bones, despite being in the comfort of your home theater.
Meanwhile, back at the Spartan ranch, the king's wife, Gorgo (Lena Headey), uses every means at her feminine hand to get the Spartan politicians to send the army out to help her husband. These scenes may slow down the battlefield action, but they do add depth to the overall tapestry.
Director Snyder shows a deft hand for violence and action – and art. He makes horrible scenes of dismembering, decapitation, and blood splattering into the air look almost surreally beautiful – stuff that otherwise could seem gratuitous.
The performances are excellent, especially Butler and Headey – though it's a bit weird to notice a Scotsman's brogue coming from the Spartan king. The overall look is also very engrossing (with, maybe, a slight focus on the "gross" in engrossing?).
We received the two disc widescreen special edition (it's also available in single disc, Pan&Scan and high definition) and it's a compelling package. The picture is a tad grainy in places, though this may be by design, but overall the dark image is very sharp and colorful. Audio is only offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (When is Warners going to start offering dts as an option on a regular basis?) and it's also very good.
Extras on disc one include a commentary, though we had trouble with the menu on the disc: when we turned on or off the commentary we got it anyway and had to stop and restart the disc before it played correctly.
Disc two has some fascinating historical background as well as some deleted scenes and short "webisodes" on the production. There's also some "making of" stuff, but it isn't nearly what we were hoping for: it's short and superficial where we were hoping for some real meat about the design, CG and the like. That'll probably have to wait for the next inevitable "ultimate special edition".
But as usual it's the movie that's the most important, and this is a good one as long as you can stand the violence.
300, from Warner Home Entertainment
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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