Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Ripped, roaring good time

Of the 3 movies I saw in the past week, 300 packed the strongest punch in terms of entertainment value (and I'm not just saying that because it was the only action film of the 3). The Good Shepherd was disappointingly bland despite an all-star cast, and The Pursuit of Happyness was touching but a tad trite, driven mainly by Will Smith's emotionally charged performance. Compared to a complex CIA plot loaded with ethical dilemmas or an inspired-by-a-true-story father-son drama, a violent ancient Greece war flick seems trivial, if not primitive, on the surface. However, for all its gore, 300 was a strangely beautiful film (and I'm not just saying that because I'm madly in love with Gerard Butler).

300 is based on Frank Miller's graphic novel, which retells the tale of the Spartans' suicidal stand against the Persian empire's army at the mountain pass of Thermopylae, or "the Hot Gates". I think "hot" was pretty much the adjective on the mind of every female viewer in the theater, as the movie featured the biggest assembly of killer abs, pecs and delts ever featured onscreen. Among the actors who played the born-and-bred-for-battle Spartans was David Wenham, he of Faramir fame from the Lord of the Rings film adaptation. Who knew the wimpier son of the steward of Gondor could bulk up so nicely? With that body, he could beat up big brother Boromir with one muscular arm tied behind his perfectly toned back. Physical enhancements aside, Wenham delivered a steady (albeit bordering on stoic) supporting performance as Dilios, the warrior with the gift of words, and neatly doubled as the movie's narrator, all the while valiantly stifling his Aussie accent.

But of course the star of the Spartan show was King Leonidas, played with much gruff gusto by my latest object of lust, Gerard Butler (funny how in Hollywood movies, Greeks are always played by Scottish, British or Australian actors-- any nationality but Greek). Even ignoring his chiseled body (hard to do though), Butler radiated pure brute animal power in this role, from his steely stare to the spittle that accompanied the lines he bellowed... not to mention the heat he generated in his love scene with Lena Headey, who played his wife (i.e. the luckiest woman in all of Sparta). As the king, Butler managed to smoothly alternate between regal and raw, tough and tender, savage and subdued, cocky and composed-- all that in between furiously hacking the Persian infantry to pieces. Like any great leader, Leonidas commanded the unconditional respect and unwavering loyalty of his men; Gerard Butler made it easy to believe that 300 soldiers would willingly, eagerly march to their deaths behind this forceful, fearless king. The people who cast Daniel Craig as James Bond should be kicking themselves in the arse for not choosing this charismatic Scottish hottie to be 007 instead.

For all its testosterone-charged stab-and-skewer scenes populated by sculpted, glistening-with-sweat bodies, 300 was executed artistically, with amazing cinematography and the usual slew of CGI effects. I loved how the Spartans' red capes stood out against the predominant sepia tones, and even sequences shot in slow-motion, which can easily turn corny when used inappropriately, were rendered flawlessly, and the results were heart-stoppingly dramatic at all the right moments. My favorite shot was of the shadow of the spear Leonidas hurled at the megalomaniac Persian emperor/self-proclaimed god Xerxes (played by a completely unrecognizable Rodrigo Santoro, the Brazilian hunk from TV's Lost, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, and Love Actually). I haven't the words to do justice to the visual feats director Zack Snyder and his crew managed to accomplish-- Robert Rodriguez's earlier take on Frank Miller's Sin City, which I actually enjoyed, seems but a distant, hazy memory after watching 300.

My only gripe with 300 is that I wish the filmmakers had emphasized that the account of the Battle of Thermopylae is actually historical, in order for the audience to further appreciate and hold in awe what the Spartans succeeded in doing. It was their sacrifice that gave the rest of Greece enough time to muster their troops to repel what remained of the Persian invaders. In short, the Greeks would not have gained victory without the Spartans' last stand at Thermopylae. Never mind that the real numbers may not have been 300 vs. 1,000,000 (some historians peg it at 12,000 vs. 100,000); whatever the head count, Leonidas' men were up against insurmountable odds, and they stood and laughed in the face of it. That day at the Hot Gates, the Spartans lived up to their Herculean heritage, and died fighting like the brave warriors they would be known as in ages to come... and immortalized as in a bombastic but brilliant piece of Hollywood cinema.


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