War, gore and glory: mercilessly brutal bloodfest, set in Ancient Greece
DIRECTED BY ZACK SNYDER
STARRING: GERARD BUTLER, LENA HEADEY, DAVID WENHAM
A mere 300 Spartans – legendary descendants of Hercules, world’s greatest soldiers and toughest Greeks of all – dig in against an army of thousands of Persians at the battle of Thermopylae. Led by the fearless King Leonidas, their motto is “no surrender, no mercy”. Back home, his Queen fends off political opportunists. The Persians’ ruler is evil Emperor Xerxes, who throws warriors, giants, elephants and freaks at the noble few. Cue severed limbs, decapitations, spurting blood and much valour and heroism.
IT’S 480 BC, and men are men. If a male baby’s born and shows any weakness, it’s tossed on the scrapheap. Boys fight wolves, feel no pain. The greatest honour is to die for Sparta – the Greek province where they simply don’t do “retreat”. As an early scene shows, diplomacy consists of killing the messenger, viciously.
When the mighty Persians get pushy, Leonidas (Butler) can’t be bothered to wait for his government to declare war. Gathering just 300 of his most-trusted psychos, he heads off to meet the enemy. He sets up base in a narrow cliffside pass, by entering which the Persians sacrifice numerical superiority. Persian Emperor Xerxes hurls his forces in in waves of various size and hue: Leonidas repels them all – his ferocious Spartans build walls from Persian corpses. They’re hard as nails. When one loses an eye, he snarls, “A scratch. I have a spare.”
Meanwhile Queen Gorgo (Headey) is hustled by corrupt Theron (The Wire’s Dominic West). But don’t worry, she can handle herself – she’s a Spartan. On the frontline the rumble escalates ever more insanely to a climax that factors in elements of Hieronymus Bosch, The Matrix and Christ on the cross. At no stage whatsoever does 300 understate.
If Frank Miller’s Sin City translated to film in a hypnotic, dark mix of live action and virtual background, this adaptation of his graphic novel 300, from the man who gave us 2004’s Dawn Of The Dead remake, is somewhat less classy. Hot for violence, it’s over-the-top from the get-go, bursting with gung-ho platitudes about defying the odds. Leonidas (gamely spun by Butler as Russell Crowe doing Richard Burton doing, well, God) is ripe for ridicule, like a stray from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, but his suicidal blinkeredness isn’t questioned.
Much else here is ludicrous: the soldiers’ leather jockstraps and check-my-abs preening come from page one of the Village People’s disco manual, while Xerxes is camp as Christmas. The sex scenes are farcical – perfume ads without the backstory. The voiceover’s relentless. And the thrust of the movie is a teenage metal fan’s damp dream – flies buzzing on mounds of the dead, overweening gravitas, loud macho posturing so devoid of reflection it’s a vacuum. There’s also the undeniable fact that its clear message – “only the hard, only the strong” – is reprehensibly fascist.
Visually, this blows harder than Sin City: sometimes it flails, sometimes it dazzles (armies plummeting into the sea, arrows like flocks of ravens, creepy lepers licking oracles). Channelling Gladiator, Braveheart, Troy and Spartacus, this is the swords-and-sandals genre retooled for the weapons of mass destruction era. For its many, huge flaws, it’s explosive, and utterly committed.