King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his 300 soldiers give invading Persian King Xerxes a less than warm welcome to Sparta. © 2007 Warner Bros.
(Reviewed February 15, 2007, by James Dawson)
Zack Snyder, who directed the surprisingly good 2004 "Dawn of the Dead" remake, does a stylish and impressively faithful job of translating comic book writer/artist Frank Miller's wildly over-the-top graphic novel "300" to the big screen. As Robert Rodriguez did with Miller's "Sin City," Snyder obviously took a lot of care in getting all of the visuals right, and even amping up a lot of Miller's outrageousness.
The problem is that this fantasy-enhanced version of the ancient battle of Thermopylae, which pitted only 300 Spartans against a much larger army of invading Persians, somehow doesn't have enough drama or soul. It's undeniably beautiful, with amazing CGI and green-screen special effects. But the characters, including Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), seem more belligerently cartoonish than believably three-dimensional.
Scenes that are meant to humanize them, such as a late-night pre-deployment pillow talk between the king and his queen (Lena Headey) that leads to shadowy multi-position sex, or some friendly put-down bantering between two Spartan soldiers as they stack bodies of their dead enemies, seem flat and forced.
Also, Snyder makes some unfathomable directing choices. At one point, the Persians use elephants against the Spartans, who should have been rather freaked out by this development—especially considering that those elephants have been supersized here to stand about 100 feet tall. But instead of having the Spartans show anticipation, dawning realization, subdued terror, resolute resolve and sustained resistance, Snyder relates that segment of the battle as only a brief flashback-style clip that lasts less than a minute.
In another scene, King Leonidas—who is so short-tempered with his perceived enemies that he already has executed a Persian messenger—allows Persian King Xerxes not only to mock him, but to lay hands on Leonidas' shoulders. Granted, there are Persian archers with arrows trained on Leonidas the whole time, so he knows that resistance would be met with swift death. But because he also knows that he and his men are on a suicide mission from the start, it's impossible to believe that he would not take advantage of his proximity to the despised Xerxes by trying to kill him. (Also, Butler lapses into what sounds like a pronounced Scottish brogue during this scene that doesn't match his accent in the rest of the movie.)
On the other hand, that scene also is a wonder to behold, because it is another instance of Snyder going beyond baroque. King Xerxes is borne on a massive throne at the top of a staircase, and the whole parade-float-huge thing is carried on the backs of a few dozen of his minions. He stands about nine feet tall, festooned with piercings and chains, looking like a Mardi Gras drag queen who is torn between remaining coolly imperious and getting into a claws-out catfight.
Another great-looking scene takes place on the moonlit mountaintop where Leonidas consults the devotees of a beautiful and barely clad oracle, who writhes in underwater-style slo-mo like a topless model in a Chanel No. 5 spot. What's Greek for "hubba-hubba?"
"300" is worth seeing just for the "seeing," but don't expect to experience any "Gladiator"-style empathy for anyone here.
Back Row Reviews Grade: B-