UK release date: Sep 8 2009

cast list

Gerard Butler
Lena Headey
Dominic West
David Wenham
Vincent Regan
Michael Fassbender
Tom Wisdom
Andrew Pleavin
Andrew Tiernan
Rodrigo Santoro

directed by
Zack Snyder
Zack Snyder transforms Frank Miller’s comic about how 300 Spartans defied a massive army of Persian invaders from an uplifting, funny, vital exploration of the nature of honour and machismo into the merely macho – 300 buff blokes in leather loincloths shedding a lot of blood, led by Gerald Butler, who’s clearly been taking lessons at the Brian Blessed School of ACTING AT THE TOP OF YOUR VOICE.

Let’s start with the story. Miller calls it the best story ever told, and for hundreds of years it was regarded as a massive turning point in Western history. It is an ur-story, it sings to something fundamental in us that a few decades of political correctness can’t eradicate – which may explain why it took $70 million at the American box office on its first weekend despite having no big name stars.

Despotic Persian man-god Xerxes is intent on invading Greece – actually a vague collection of city states rather fond of fighting each other – and a few thousand men hope to stop him by forcing the invading army to pass through the narrow, seaside pass at Thermopylae where the Persian millions (Greek historian Herodotus ‘estimates’ their power at 2,317,610 men!) count for little. When the Persians find a way of sneaking round the back most of the Greeks retreat, leaving only a small Spartan guard, led by Sparta’s war leader Leonidas, some Thespians and unwilling Thessalians to face certain death. Inspired by their stubborn sacrifice, the Greek city states unite and thrash the Persians a year later, marking the rise of Greece as a Western power.

Miller pares down the story a great deal to create a plot that’s like a thundering express train. Unfortunately the film’s three writers unpare, quite vigorously, adding in the predictable subplot about an evil political agitator back in Sparta, presumably to give a greater role to Gorgo, Leonidas’s queen, the only woman of note in the story. They also make room for an awful lot of bombastic dialogue, completely unnecessary tits and ass scenes, and a rhino of war. Very strange.

On the plus side, if you can forgive a sluggish and over-padded story with an intrusive narrator who keeps explaining the obvious which rather cheapens the emotional impact of all that manly sacrifice, you do get some incredible visuals. A combination of artwork, special effects and live action, much like the previous Frank Miller adaptation Sin City, the countless special effects people and talented cinematographers create a quite beautiful vision; even the violence is gorgeous. The source material is about battle, so it better be.

The problem with having a story centred around 300 men is in assembling a sufficiently hunky cast acting ability seems to have been forgotten. This is an ensemble piece, and not only are chunks of the original story showing the camaraderie and character of the men cut, this bunch of six-pack warriors share half a dozen different accents but absolutely no chemistry. Most of them seem to come from TV shows. We’ve got bit players from Hex, The Bill, Lost and Wild at Heart (God help us) trying to convey a concept large sectors of modern audiences find particularly difficult to get behind. It’s not enough to be big and dumb and heroic, the story goes to the very hart of machismo, something more than heroism, more than manliness. Miller’s story brings the Spartans to life with all their unbelievable arrogance and verve and joy at the prospect of a good fight, so alive and yet so unafraid of death: the film makes them into a bunch of knuckleheads, simply macho in the modern, pejorative sense.

Lena Headey does her upstanding English best as Gorgo and some of the interchanges she has with Gerald Butler’s Leonidas are quite deft, but once he’s gone to war she’ paired with Dominic West (The Wire), who comes on like a bad panto villain as Theron, the scheming politician. He’s way out-oiled by Lost’s Rodrigo Santoro playing Xerxes who tries to be exotic but comes over as merely silly.

My advice would be read Herodotus’s Histories book 7, buy the DVD, show it on a big plasma screen, turn the sound off and just enjoy the parade of beautiful images.

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