We will block the sun with our arrows,' says a foul-faced Persian emissary, speaking of Xerxes' million-man army and their unstoppable advance.
Stelios, the Spartan, allows him a second of confidence.
'Then we will fight in the shade.'
There is an almighty war whoop, not just from the other 299 assembled Spartan fighting machines, but from the audience. Testosterone is a heady drug, especially when slathered on with thick, self-indulgent brushstrokes. Blood and guts fly -- artfully and all over the place -- in 300, and you'll exult for ridiculously brave Spartan chieftain Leonidas. Then, you'll walk out of the theatre and forget all about him.
It's the kind of film that'll raise both opinions and eyebrows, with great force.
On one hand, there's Progress -- this is the story of an astonishingly loyal comic book adaptation without A-list actors or massive sets, relying on fantastic visual compositing to create a visual spectacle for 1/5th the budget of a Spider-Man film. On the other, there's Purpose -- did we really need to see this macabre blood-and-guts feast translated verbatim on the big screen? Does it achieve anything, this efficient bastardising of history?
For the record, 300 is not historically accurate though it does aim to capture the spirit of a true incident. In 480 BC, an utterly outnumbered Greek faction strategically and amazingly held back Xerxes' rampaging Persian army, buying themselves enough time to eventually strike back with a Naval force.
Frank Miller's version of the story, inspired more by a 1962 film than anything else, is of 300 Spartans holding out against a million. A tall, and admittedly noble, order indeed.
Also, it isn't a particularly good graphic novel. Okay, so it's awesomely drawn (duh) and Miller's ex-wife Lynn Varley colours the full-page, widescreen panels exquisitely, but it's much more a breathtaking coffee-table collectible than a work of substance. This is Miller going completely popcorn, which is evidently all he was trying to do.
This makes director Zack Snyder's unflinching loyalty to the original ironically tragic. He's followed the pages like a Holy Storyboard, possibly incredulous at the chance to direct something made by Frank. It is a big ask, and his thrill is justifiable, but the dialogue -- 300's characters speak exclusively in punchlines -- doesn't translate well at all, leaving the characters woody and undefined.
Inexplicably, he does stray from the original to create a part for Leonidas' queen, Gorgo, someone the book completely ignores. Played by Lena Headley, she has ample screentime, but Snyder makes her an unlikable cardboard character, one whose scenes you sit through to get back to the phalanx-forming action.
So just what does the film have? Manhood, Spartan-style. Sparta, as we read in our history books, was the Greek land of uncompromising physical perfection, where deformed babies are tossed aside and starved young children are thrown into the snow. The Spartans are a visibly tough lot, and when King Leonidas (a solid Gerard Butler) hears of the Persian Army slamming through their town, he shouts out gospel truth -- Spartans don't surrender -- and prepares to face impossible odds, armed by faith and tremendous sized shields.
Thus, we travel with Leonidas and his mighty men, youths who take pleasure in cracking skulls and building walls out of corpses, as they strategically find a narrow mountain passage and decide, simply, to block it. There is much towel-slapping among these corps, as they laughingly deride Romans ('boy-lovers') and compare each other's techniques ('fine thrust').
Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is shown as a male Cleopatra, carried on soldier's shoulders supporting an Elizabeth Taylor-throne with all the frills.
There's action, and plenty of it. Some of the set-pieces are quite stellar, and women have plenty to drool over as the Spartans love their shields and maroon cloaks, but love showing off their pecs. But it's hard to get past the painfully clunky dialogue, making everything too unreal to connect, even the beautifully crafted scarab-shaped arrowheads.
Adding to the unreality are the visual effects. The film strives to be completely unreal, with shiny-blackened eyes and precisely decapitated heads. The compositing is marvelous -- only one scene has been shot outdoors, the rest is all blue-screened -- making this a definite big-screen watch, and a ride men of all ages are likely to enjoy (and toss in their own 'RAAARRRR' every now and then).
300's flaw lies in this extreme, stylised unreality. Between the so-good-it's-untrue vistas, the strange lines of dialogue, and all that blood, it eventually leaves you rather cold.