Frank Miller adaptations are on a roll. First we got "Sin City," and now we have the story of three hundred Spartans who repelled a massive invasion.
And the adaptation of "300" is a stunning one -- literally stunning, since it bombards the viewer with larger-than-life characters, smashing visuals and tight direction. It goes a bit too fast for its own good, but it's a truly epic film that takes the historical war movie to another level -- all the more so because it actually happened.
As the introduction tells us, the Spartans were the ultimate warrior people. Babies were inspected for weakness or faults, and killed if they had any; as they were growing up, they were taught and toughened by a savage regimen. Their only true hope was to "die beautifully" for their land.
A Persian messenger arrives, telling King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) that the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) wants the Spartans to bow to him. Leonidas' response: shove the Persians into a pit. But before he can go to war, he must consult the corrupt priesthood of Ephors and their beautiful Oracle. She predicts that Sparta will fall and the gods forbid war at the approach of the Carneaian festival -- courtesy of a hefty bribe from a Spartan traitor.
So Leonidas takes out three hundred of his best men, along with their nervy Arcadian allies, and begin trouncing the Persians. But they are being sabotaged, both by a hunchbacked outcast and by a treacherous councilor, whom Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) is battling. And so at Thermopylae, Leonidas prepares for a final battle against the monstrous Persian Army -- knowing that their story of freedom will live on.
This is not a "sensitive" movie where you have any appreciation for the bad guys -- it's a glorification of three hundred soldiers who died for their land and freedom. It just wouldn't work otherwise. It doesn't blindly adore the Spartans -- we see their darker side in their "weed out the weak" policy -- but it does appreciate them. They respect and care about each other, and Leonidas is as kind as he can be even to Ephialtes, the traitor.
And it's done in a manner appropriate to its comic book origins -- grimy, bloody and epic, but with a stylized look that is almost like CGI. The battles are shockingly good, and full of fantasy-ish creations like the monstrous creatures or the silver-masked Immortals. Even a wall of corpses. But we also get some beautiful visuals as well -- roiling seas, sunlit battlefields, Spartan cities, and the drugged Oracle in her white veil.
While the script gets a bit over-the-top at times, it's hard not to be moved by dialogue that can be darkly funny ("It's just an eye. The gods saw fit to grace me with a spare") or stirring ("He did not wish tribute, nor song, or monuments or poems of war and valor. His wish was simple: "Remember us." That was his hope, should any free soul come across that place, in all the countless centuries yet to be").
Butler and Headey are simply great as Leonidas and Gorgo -- they're both strong, passionate and fearless, and they both do a great job in their separate storylines. But the movie is filled with good performances -- David Wenham as the narrator, Dominic West as a disgusting traitor, Santoro as the decadent, arrogant god-king, and many others.
"300" is a unique, stirring, stunning movie that pushes the action-movie envelope, and gives a thrilling edge to a real-life story of overwhelming edge. A brilliant movie.