300: Special Edition (2 Disc Set) Review
The Persian armies of Xerxes are gathering. The many Grecian armies are divided and many more have already surrendered to Xerxes. But one stands alone, the Spartan army of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler). Welcoming a Persian ambassador, his veiled threats of slavery and the skulls of conquered kings that he bears by tossing him down a well, Leonidas declares that no Spartan shall be enslaved by Persians. Challenging the word of the politicians and the Spartan Oracle, Leonidas takes his personal guard of three hundred warriors and marches north to Thermopylae where Xerxes and his army are landing. Three hundred Spartans, who have trained their entire lives as warriors and as free men meet him there. They stand against an army numbering over a million. This will be a last stand to remember.
Mel Gibson described Apocalypto as a pure distillation of chase movies, one that cut away the excesses of storytelling to have one man running through the jungles pursued by a group of many. Apocalypto was no such thing, at least not when it dallied in limestone quarries, a bustling marketplace and gags about warm tapir balls. On the other hand, 300 is a distillation of previous movies, one that strips away much of the drama in favour of one glorious battle scene after another. Or, being honest, one movie and that is Gladiator.
300 is a film for those who enjoyed Gladiator but who wished for less Proximo (Oliver Reed), less Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) and less Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). It is a film for those who, though impressed with the technology to recreate Rome on film, were less enamoured with the towering walls of the Coliseum than they were the blood spilt on the ground within. 300 is for those who enjoyed the vast armies waging war in Germania, the sight of Russell Crowe beheading gladiators in his first fight as a gladiator and, barking orders to those around him as he turned the tables in the Roman recreation of the Battle of Carthage.
300 is almost all battle, a stylish and thrilling but largely empty film about a small group of skilled warriors, who were without equal in their era, standing up to an army many times their size but who were prepared to fight for the death for their country and for their freedom. Taking as its visual cue the flashbacks to Maximus' home life in Gladiator - 300 is all dust, shadows and backgrounds as drawn by the impressionists - it brings one battle after another to the screen. From the beginning when a young Leonidas spears a wolf in the wilderness to the moment when he leads his army to meet with Xerxes, 300 has the Spartan army honour their name against increasingly deadly opponents. From those who were enslaved into the army by Xerxes and whose still-warm corpses are piled up to be used as cover by Leonidas to the legendary Immortals and, in between, elephants, giants and rhinos, 300 raises itself with each assault by the Persian armies, if not reaching so much a conclusion as simply running out of people (and things) for Leonidas to slaughter.
The purpose of 300 is to entertain through fantasy. Eventually, it runs out of human opponents, no matter how scarred they are, and must turn instead to animals and monsters. A giant is led into battle by the Immortals and strains at its chains until it is unleashed onto Leonidas. Elsewhere, an executioner has the job of beheading Xerxes' failing generals but has his swords (of bone) sewn into his arms where his hands ought to be. The hunchback Ephialtes proves duplicitous while, in a deleted scene, dwarf archers ride on the backs of giants who are taught a lesson by the Spartans as they are literally cut down to size on the battlefield. There is no reason to 300, even less so when the Spartans push a herd of elephants over the cliffs and onto the rocks below, only that each battle tops the one before. And as Leonidas pushes his men into battle to the sound of industrial rock, there is only a wish to entertain and 300 is often hugely entertaining.
There are problems with how basic these characters are drawn. Early in the film, 300 pits black (the Persians) against white (the Spartans), adding to this East against West. The handsome Spartans are the heroes while the scarred, monstrous Persians are the villains. The hunchback Ephialtes shows his weakness through his disfigurement as well as his longing for the touch of female skin. The Spartans, on the other hand, are led by the upstanding Celts Gerard Butler, David Wenham and Vincent Regan while his enemies in the parliament are led by the English Dominic West. 300 reduces its characters to mere sketches and takes no risks with the expectations of its audience. As it so reduces Gladiator to a series of battles, so it reduces its characters to the most basic of good-versus-bad, coding them in colour, disabilities and origins so as not to confuse an audience wanting, in the manner of the crowds in the Coliseum, to see blood.
Then again, that's not the intention of 300. Treading familiar paths, 300 takes from Sin City it's use of a comic book for inspiration and its frame-by-frame structure for storyboards. From there, it also takes its heavy use of green screen and CG to fill in backgrounds, build characters and bring armies to the screen. From Gladiator it offers a reprise of Maximus in Leonidas, not to mention Braveheart's William Wallace in his way with dealing with the English, leaving it borrowing so heavily that it just about stands on its own. But it does, never entirely successfully - it tends to wobble most in those scenes away from the battle with Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and Theron (Dominic West) - but is certainly enjoyable so long as one has few expectations beyond watching one battle after another. However, go to 300 with that in mind and it can be ridiculously entertaining. It is also, more often than not, ridiculous but from the pages of a comic book to the sight of elephants, giants and Immortals riding into battle to the sound of Nine Inch Nails, it was never going to be anything else.
From the very beginning, it's clear that this comes with an above-average transfer. Coming from a digital source and anamorphically presented, the picture is sufficiently clear to see the blurring and halos between the live-action cast and the CG backgrounds, which are most obvious when Leonidas gathers his three hundred and the film frames them against a wheat field and a dusky sky. However, such problems are apparent on many films with the exception being that not many have such a good transfer as to make them quite so clear. What's most impressive is not the reproduction of colour - greys, browns, reds and a lot of beige is the look of 300 - but the level of detail, which is at its best in the clarity that comes with the Spartans readying themselves on the battlefield.
The DD5.1 is also impressive. Mixed to make the most of the soundstage, it brings the action out from the front and side speakers to have it fill the room and, like the picture, with such clarity as to have this stand out as a superior release. Dialogue is clear throughout as is the action and though the voiceover from David Wenham intrudes on the latter at times, there is a palpable sense of being in the midst of things throughout. Finally, there is a full complement of subtitles on this Region 3 release although the bonus features, with the exception of the commentary, are presented with an English language track but without English subtitles.
Commentary: The only bonus material on the first disc is this track with director Zack Snyder, writer Kurt Johnstad and DoP Larry Fong. It is exactly as one might expect with such contributors, being a feature-length comparison between the graphic novel and the finished film as well as how many of the effects shots were constructed. At first, this is reasonably interesting, even to one who hasn't read the books or much of a liking for the technical accomplishments of CG effects but the longer it goes on - and it goes on for the entire length of the commentary - the less fascinating it becomes. Even then, they avoid going into any detail so it merely touches on what is real and what is fake in each scene and how well the film compares with Frank Miller's book.
The 300 - Fact or Fiction? (24m33s): Certainly, the Spartans were real as was the Battle of Thermopylae in which King Leonidas fought the armies of Xerxes but much else, not least the various monsters in the Persian army, are clearly the inventions of Frank Miller and the makers of this film. Thankfully, this feature doesn't take the point of view that we should see very much resembling the truth in 300, rather that it is a glorified retelling of a story with many embellishments. With Bettany Hughes and Dr Victor Davis Hanson appearing as the experts and Zack Snyder to gee up his film, there are glimpses of what inspired 300 and what is known of Leonidas and Xerxes but, more often than not, this makes clear the message that 300 is just a movie and that one should take its depiction of the story with much more than a pinch of salt.
Who Were The Spartans? (4m25s): Contrary to the Spartans describing everyone else as boy-lovers, they were renowned for taking young boys as company during their long period of training. That isn't included here, which implies it's not something that the audience for 300 wants to here, so instead we have Bettany Hughes and Dr Victor Davis Hanson describing who the Spartans were and how their society operated. Proto-communists, it would seem...except for the 15 slaves to every free man in Sparta.
Frank Miller’s Tapes (14m33s): This feature gives Frank Miller (and some of his supporters) the chance to talk about his background in comic books and his love of the medium. It does have much more focus on 300 than on anything else but allows Miller the opportunity to describe his love of detective books, his views on history and how he sees comic books (or graphic novels) evolving.
Making Of 300 (5m50s): At less than six minutes, this isn't going to really describe how the film was made but is more the kind of thing that might appear as a report within a film show. Gerard Butler, Lena Headey and Frank Miller are all on hand to describe 300 but don't go into very much more than that. This is followed by Making 300 In Pictures (3m39s), which is a visuals-only, speeded-up look at the filming of 300 through a behind-the-scenes camera.
Deleted Scenes (3m22s): There are two scenes here with director Zack Snyder on hand to introduce them and to explain why they were cut from the film. These two scenes, neither of which are essential to the plot, feature more of Ephialtes and a battle between the Spartans and Persian giants with miniature archers on their back.
Webisodes (38m21s): These were, given the title, no doubt available online during the production of 300 but all twelve are collected here and do a reasonable job of describing the production of the film, including Production Design, Stunt Work and the work in Adapting The Graphic Novel. There are also webisodes regarding the cast - one each on Gerard Butler, Rodrigo Santoro and Lena Headey - scene studies and, finally, one on the Fantastic Characters of 300.