With hordes of buff blokes wearing leather undies and little else, you’d be forgiven for thinking that 300 is some sort of chick flick. But it’s not. Unless, of course, you’re a chick with a predilection for lots of screaming, sweaty men chopping bits off each other ... then it’s right up your alley. Or even a narrow mountain pass, for that is where much of the film takes place. At its heart, 300 is simply a retelling of the historic Battle of Thermopylae, in 480BC, between 300 Spartans and 200,000 or so invading Persian troops. It’s based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, which was itself inspired by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans.
The Spartans are led by King Leonidas (Butler), who heads off to fight the Persians against the wishes of the Spartan council, which would rather negotiate than fight. So because he’s not allowed to take the army with him, King Leo sets off with just 300 of his closest buddies — all of them willing to lay down their lives. As is stressed time and again through the film, the Spartans were a true warrior race that lived for battle — they were groomed for it from childhood — and loved nothing more than to die for freedom and honour. A lot like the Klingons from Star Trek, really. The first half-hour is a tad dull (lots of exposition) and there is no real character development as such, or true emotional involvement, but once the action kicks in, you don't really care — you just sit back and go along for the ride. And what a ride it is, with plenty of blood, sweat — and limbs, plus the occasional head — flying, and more machismo than the entire Rocky collection. It helps that there are no big-name stars; the actors are simply there to bring Miller’s comic to life rather than bring any real depth to their characters. That said, director Zack Snyder manages to get more out of his actors — all working in front of a blue screen for the backgrounds to be digitally added in post production — than George Lucas ever did in his three Star Wars prequels.
Gerard Butler — who must have spent as much time working out his voice as buffing up his body for his role, because he spends most of his time on screen shouting — makes a fine King Leonidas, full of passion, anger and lust for battle. One slight letdown is that the main villain of the piece — the bejeweled, multi-pierced Persian Emperor Xerxes — is pretty camp and never once comes across as scary. All he’s really got on his side is the weight of numbers, a few elephants and rhinos, and a giant that can withstand an unbelievable amount of punishment. As sword and sandal epics go, 300 is not quite up there with Gladiator, but far superior to Troy and Alexander.
SECOND OPINION | Neil Davey: As historical document, it’s not the most accurate of portrayals or even the most realistic of speculations. As a two-hour slice of visceral cinema though it’s pretty damn triumphant. With Xerxes leading his army to conquer huge chunks of the world — well, we say leading, he’s more of an ‘I’ll just be on my throne at the back if you need me’ sort of chap — it fell to King Leonidas to draw a line and say ‘enough’. Without the support of the Greek army, Leonidas leads — and properly leads, with sword-swinging and everything — 300 of his men (well, 299, if we’re being mathematically accurate) to defend his people’s freedom and democracy.
After a little background explaining why Spartans are such a sturdy bunch, and against a backdrop of political shenanigans in Sparta between Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and the slimy Theron (Dominic West), the film rapidly settles into a ridiculously testosterone-charged series of battles. Things are suitably graphic novelly, with exaggerated blood spurts, slow-motion sword- and spear-play and the occasional mutant popping up to give the make-up team something to do. There is dialogue, of sorts, which veers between delightfully chest-thumping and fantastically anachronistic. This isn’t a Mel Gibson epic, with thought and accuracy and original dialects. This is pumped up actors going “rah” a lot, and discussing how they’re going to kick Persian arse.
Performances are as good as they need to be, Butler is certainly a charismatic lead and the graphic novel look is well handled by Zack Snyder. There’s not a great deal of depth to things, despite the political subplot, and the characters aren’t exactly what you’d call well-developed, which may leave Frank Miller fans slightly disappointed: it’s hard to imagine his original work being this shallow or emotionally uninvolving. However, as violent eye-candy — and a history lesson of sorts — 300 certainly delivers.