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300
Limited Collector's Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Rodrigo Santoro
Director:  Zack Snyder
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  116 Minutes
Release Date: 
November 18, 2008

“This is madness!”

“Madness?  THIS IS SPARTA!!” 

Film ****

What’s in a number?  Well, if you’re talking about 300, the number means a harrowing adventure story, a brutally violent escapade, a visually striking triumph, and a powerful feat of storytelling all wrapped up in a single film.

Like Sin City, 300 was based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, but cinematically, it takes his style and story even further.  This film for me represents the most perfect realization of a graphic novel yet depicted on the screen, using CGI, incredible cinematography, and a bloody glorious tale from the pages of history, all in a way that seems to take filmmaking technology to the next level.

The story focuses on the legendary battle of Thermopylae, where a band of 300 rough and tumble warriors from Sparta led by the unflappable King Leonidas (Butler) made a stand against the all-conquering Persian army of Xerxes (Santoro), whose minions numbered in the tens of thousands.  At the heart is really a battle of ideals:  the Spartans believe freedom isn’t free, and would rather die as free men than live as slaves, no matter how flamboyantly temping Xerxes’ flattering offers may be.

The Spartans were possibly the most kick-ass warriors in the history of the world.  Raised from childhood to be fierce, brave and ruthless, they weren’t the kind of soldiers who would let a little inconvenient fact like being outnumbered hundreds if not thousands-to-one stand in their way…not when their very way of life and everything they hold dear was facing annihilation.

But Persia isn’t Leonidas’ only enemy.  At home, within the realms of his own government, are voices who actually blame Leonidas for the war rather than Xerxes…politicians who would rather bicker and quibble than take up arms against an enemy bent on conquest, even entertaining the notion that they could live in submission to Persia in exchange for peace.  Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

And so, under such circumstances, Leonidas and his 300 bravest warriors vow to make a stand to the death rather than submit.  They have no illusions about what their end result would be.  But the Spartans were fighters like no other.  Even though they faced certain demise, they kept their goal of taking as many enemy combatants as possible with them.

Even though the history of these events has long since been written, the film, as directed by Zack Snyder, is remarkable in how it allows the story to unfold in a visual splendor unlike anything seen in the movies before.  My girlfriend said it best:  it’s an amazingly beautiful film, even though that seems an odd description considering it might also be the most carnal and violent I’ve ever seen.  The bloodshed is constant and relentless, but the historical bent makes it all seem plausible and palatable.  This isn’t just gore for the sake of gore…it’s the blood and guts of a courageous but outnumbered army making their choice to pay for their freedom with their own lives.

Most of the backgrounds and set pieces are computer rendered, but unlike in George Lucas’ recent endeavors, the visuals don’t overwhelm the story, but rather underline it.  This is not some distant future world, but a long gone past that’s just as far away as any Star Wars galaxy.  And it tells a tale that’s intriguingly, and maybe even frighteningly, close to our home and our own present day situation.

I haven’t even mentioned Gerard Butler as Leonidas…what an intense, incredible and memorable performance from the man who played The Phantom of the Opera.  Every shot he’s in seems like an instant icon, and any frame of his could have easily been the poster image.  That feels like a lot of pressure for an actor, not to mention the fact that so much of his performance took place against blue screens and against armies that had to be rendered later on a machine.  Butler carved out an instant star for himself, proving himself capable of carrying action, drama and romance as well as any in Hollywood. 

I have a feeling many will try to duplicate 300 in style, and many will try to make it even bigger, badder and bloodier than this one.  But they will miss the point if they do so.  The story must come first, and this story is first rate.  It employs technology to expand the canvas, not dominate it.  And that’s why this film will remain a cult landmark despite the inevitable string of imitators sure to follow.

Video ****

I had a hunch this might be one of the best looking DVDs of the year, and I wasn’t disappointed.  The distinct visual style, which was mostly digital in composition, made for a perfect match for the medium.  Images are startlingly clear and striking throughout, and despite the extreme variety of lighting schemes, every detail comes across with crispness and detail.  Absolutely superb.

Audio ****

I had a hunch this might be one of the best sounding DVDs of the year, and…well, you know.  The 5.1 mix is as lively as you’re likely to hear, with almost constantly raging battle scenes, a thunderous score, and clear dialogue throughout.  This is dynamic and enveloping from start to finish…highest marks.

Features ****

I had a hunch this might be one of the best packaged DVDs of the year, and...okay, deja vu is getting to me now.  This is the kind of movie you’ll want to know more about, and this limited edition three disc offering from Warner doesn’t fall short.  The first disc contains a great commentary with director Zack Snyder, along with his go-writer and director of photography. 

Then you can get even more in-depth with the second disc, with some deleted scenes and many featurettes.  You’ll see how Frank Miller’s vision was realized on film, a look at the actual Spartans of history, and how the actors used facts to build their portrayals.  Finally, peruse some webisodes for more behind-the-scenes with cast and crew.

The third disc contains a new documentary "To the Hot Gates: A Legend Retold", which is an in-depth look at how the history came alive through the graphic novel to the amazing visual realization on screen.  It also has a bonus digital copy of the film.

Finally, the special edition packaging also has a 52-page hardcover art book with a personal message from Snyder, a lucite display with motion film image and six collectible photo cards.  All in all, everything a rabid fan could hope to sink his teeth into!

Summary:

Spartans (and others)…prepare for glory.  Warner has delivered a knockout limited collector's edition of 300, worthy of one of the true best pictures of its year.  This must be seen…and if you couldn’t catch it in big screen glory, this DVD is the way to go.  Just don't wait, or you'll miss your chance.  Unreservedly recommended.

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