WEST HOLLYWOOD — Few modern men can look into the face of death and gladly accept their fate. Except maybe those masochistic bozos from the Jackass movies.
But in 480 B.C., an elite band of 300 lean, mean fighting machines known as the Spartans faced off against hordes of Persian soldiers at the battle of Thermopylae, knowing that certain slaughter awaited them. They lost their lives but scored a moral victory for freedom that resounds to this day.
Leading the charge at what is known as the Greek Alamo was King Leonidas, whose headstrong valor and unwavering discipline to his culture's militaristic code is captured in all its glory in 300. The mind-blowing ballet of R-rated butchery, beefcake and bombast rumbles into theaters at late-night screenings Thursday.
The $60-million-plus epic starring Gerard Butler also will play at IMAX theaters, and for good reason. The History Channel this is not. The surreal ode to extreme combat is part Fellini freak show, part Lord of the Rings-style blood feast and all adrenaline rush, stoked by the occasional heavy-metal power chord amid the usual ululating arias that are indigenous to such ancient derring-do.
Its bruised beauty is enhanced by an inky palette and moody skyscapes inspired by the illustrations found in Frank Miller's 1998 graphic novel. And 300 might just do for Hollywood's ailing epic genre, which has been wounded by the unsatisfying likes of Troy and Alexander, what the Spartans did for war: Turn the thrill of the kill into high art.
Standing behind the camera is a man with nearly as much confidence in his vision as Leonidas himself. Director Zack Snyder, who at age 41 could pass for 21 in his trendy sneaks and camo hoodie, is much shorter and slighter than Butler, the stately Scot who was behind the mask in 2004's Phantom of the Opera.
To play the legendary Spartan, the actor underwent a grueling training regimen for about seven months, often for six hours a day, long before shooting began to achieve the necessary he-man physique to pull off his revealing leather-bikini-and-cape ensemble.
"I felt like a lion. I felt like a killer," Butler says. "I felt like a leader ferocious enough to take on such an army."
But Snyder, who got his start with commercials (he did the Budweiser ad with the gridiron Clydesdales), is no less a mighty warrior when it comes to taking on challenges, even if he is munching on a cheeseburger and fries instead of the diet of meat, berries and leaves that his finely sculpted cast had to subsist on.
He, too, relishes an opportunity that might scare off lesser mortals. Such as his 2004 remake of the 1978 horror classic Dawn of theDead, which not only bumped The Passion of the Christ off the top of the box-office chart but also helped to feed a new zombie-flick frenzy.
A first-time filmmaker, Snyder had the audacity to turbo-charge George A. Romero's stumbling flesh eaters into meat-seeking missiles. He also blew off the threats he received from diehard fans of the original.
"They would say, 'Who do you think you are? You can't remake this movie. George Romero is God. I'm going to kill you if I see you.' "
Did he freak out? "No. They all ended up loving the movie."
Talks about a sequel
With 300, which Snyder tried to get off the ground before he did Dawn, it was the studios that initially balked.
"No one was really interested in making it into a movie. They just didn't get it. It was late 2002, and Troy was just in preproduction. They had Brad Pitt. They had everything they needed," he says. "They said, 'Oh, what? You're going to come around with your crazy graphic novel?' I didn't know how hard it is to make a movie."
But after the surprise success of Dawn, Snyder acquired the necessary industry muscle to sell his pitch. The popularity of 300's like-minded, blue-screen-heavy predecessor, Sin City, Robert Rodriguez's 2005 digital noir rendering of another Miller graphic novel, didn't hurt.
The onetime art major also was able to share his stylized imaginings in the form of storyboards he sketched himself, which would eventually be re-created on Montreal soundstages and on the computer screens at 10 visual effects companies in four countries.
His actors were duly impressed.
"Zack is a lovely guy who also happens to be kind of a genius," says Lena Headey, the British actress who brings strong-willed Spartan queen Gorgo to life. "He has such great energy and is committed to his belief. He doesn't give in to pressure."
So were the execs.
"The movie is all about Zack Snyder," says Jeff Robinov, head of production for Warner Bros., which by all rights should have been less than enthused to back 300 after releasing Troy and Alexander. "Until he showed us his storyboards, I had no idea what the movie was. We already had our share of sword-and-sandal movies. Another one was not an obvious choice.
"But that's not this movie. It felt very cool, fun and exciting."
He compares Snyder's brainy yet visceral approach, which expresses such concepts as a free society where the few sacrifice themselves for the many, to another of the studio's revolutionary films: The Matrix. Talk of a sequel already is in the air.
As for Miller, notoriously finicky when it comes to allowing his work to be cinematized, the comic-book master best known for his 1986 re-invention of Batman as the Dark Knight went gaga for Snyder's take on 300. He liked how skillfully Snyder referenced scenes and dialogue from his graphic novel.
"I was convinced Zack was right for the job," says Miller, who has an executive-producer credit. "I knew he would be fearless and that he was willing to throw the modern world over his shoulder and charge in with this postmodern-world feeling. He took it into a post-apocalyptic perspective."
It helped they were on the same cultural wavelength, especially when it comes to violence.
"We love not just renowned samurai films like Kurosawa's but lower-budget and gorier ones," he says. "There is an honest beauty you can't take your eyes off of."
Not for men only
Clips were unveiled at last summer's Comic-Con, the annual San Diego event that is ground zero for comic-book supergeeks who generate buzz, pro and con, by the blogs-ful. When they spied the sneering Leonidas kick the chest of a Persian messenger and send him down a deep well, the crowd shouted its demand for an instant replay of the preview. Twice.
"When we ask, 'What are the most highly anticipated movies of the year?' 300 and Spider-Man 3 are the ones mentioned the most," says Alex Billington, co-founder of fan site FirstShowing.net, who witnessed the Comic-Con reaction firsthand. "What 300 has achieved now, no one else has come close to achieving. This is setting the new standard for comic-book movies."
Among those eagerly awaiting 300's arrival are history buffs who have had to make do with The 300 Spartans, a much stodgier re-enactment from 1962. But just as Miller was haunted by the thought of these doomed heroes who don't get out alive when he saw the film at age 6, so, too, was John Trikeriotis, 47, who runs 300SpartanWarriors.com and TheLeonidasExpeditions.com.
"Frank Miller blew the dust off of a story that has been around 2,500 years," says Trikeriotis, who plans to take a scholarly trip to Thermopylae in 2008. Although purists might nitpick the factual liberties taken by 300, the core appeal of the tale remains.
"It is the self-sacrifice. That is really it in a nutshell," he says. "If the film gets people to say, 'I want to read more about this,' that is a good thing."
As for anyone who thinks 300 is guys-only fare, consider those half-naked Spartans. At test screenings, the film tested 100% positive for women of all ages.
Says Snyder: "The studio was like, 'What the hell? We don't even get this at our romantic comedies.' "