Tough. Muscular. Operatic. The very definition of epic. I remember sitting in the theatre during Zach Snyder’s 300 and being just floored and knocked flat on my ass by the violence, spectacle and music on display, and that was just the first ten minutes. It’s a historical war film unlike any other, and like it’s sister film Sin City, it jumps right off the boldly crafted pages of Frank Miller’s novel with all the movement and spirit of a motion picture, while still retaining the fluidity and distinction of a comic book. The sheer force of it will trample your senses into glorious oblivion, whisking you away for two thunderous hours of sound, fury and unrepentant battle. Like any sensation of the week, it gained haters who claim it isn’t the winner everyone’s says it is, or that it hasn’t stood the test of time. They’re either trying to go against the grain to be the ‘cool minority’, or they’re just negative nitpicking nellies. No matter. In 300’s case, they are resoundingly off key whenever I hear them bash it, and just dead wrong. It has stood the test of time, a process I measure by the ebb and flow of my desire to watch older films again and again. I often revisit this one, and marvel at it anew each time. The story follows the battle of Thermopolye, in which three hundred well trained, ridiculously combat savvy Spartan men faced off against a Persian army numbering near a million, led by their arrogent weirdo of a king, Xerxes (a very scary Rodrigo Santoro). They do this to protect their land and their people, a splinter group of sorts that takes up arms when the Spartan senate refuses to act. The battle is a relentless storm of blood, arrows, decapitated limbs, howling barbarians, wanton carnage and mass slaughter. It doesn’t feel half as savage or heavy as my description sounds though, thanks to the poise and purpouse of the narration penned by Miller, and the extravagant, thought out choreography that includes a whole lot of beautifully satisfying slow motion that has become Snyder’s trademark tool. Love it or hate it, I think it flairs up an action terrifically, especially ones as chaotic and hellbent as these. The Spartans are a wonder to see in action, virile death dealers with a full bore love for the heat of combat and a blatant, cavalier attitude in the very face of death. David Wenham is a force of gravity as Dilios, who provides the rousing narration and kicks ass as Butler’s second in command. Butler makes a commanding Leonidas, his presence everything that you’d want to see in a king, from nobility, to necessary belligerence, to an overwhelming love for his kingdom that is present in every step, every spear throw, every furious war cry. A cheeky Michael Fassbender and Vincent Reagan round out the platoon nicely, and they all have wicked cameraderie that makes their bond in battle stronger. Lena Headey is fiercely attractive and devilishly competent as Queen Gorgo, with a love for Leonidas and their son that cuts through the brutality and gives it purpouse. Dominic West goes against type as Theron, a sniveling, traitorous bitch boy of a Senate member who aims to usurp Sparta and send everything to high hell. The cast goes on with memorable turns from Peter Mensah, Robert Maillet and the legendary Stephen Mchattie. Composer Tyler Bates churns out a score that soars, scorches and bellows forth a primal auditory symphony. This was Snyder first flexing his muscles after his visceral remake of Dawn Of The Dead that barely hinted at the wonders in his career to come. Here he presents a staggering visual aesthetic that he would go on to use in his masterful adaptation of Watchmen, the sadly misunderstood, excellent Sucker Punch, and his DC Comics films which are unbelievable. It all started here with flash and flourish, a jaw dropping sword and sandal typhoon of a film that will give your adrenal gland a workout and your sound system a good old thrashing. In a word: Epic.
Antoine Fuqua’s Tears Of The Sun is a brutal, tough war machine of a flick in the tradition of the old 70’s war films, kind of like a brooding Dirty Dozen. Bruce Willis stoically heads up a team of special ops soldiers who are sent into a war torn region of Africa to rescue a doctor (Monica Belucci) from a missionary camp. Genocidal maniacs are encroaching into the area and it’s no longer safe for locals or relief workers. His orders are simple: locate and extract the doctor, and no one else. However, when he comes face to face with the refugees, and their situation, he simply can’t find it in himself to turn his back on them when he can do something to help. He then disobeys his orders, collects both his team, Bellucci and the Africans and makes a run through the jungle for diplomatic protected soil. His team are a grizzled band of warriors, each with their own unique qualities and opinion on his decision. Kelly (a badass, mohawk adorned Johnny Messner) believes it’s too much of a risk, and not their concern). Michael ‘Slo’ Slowenski (Nick Chinlund, excellent and understated) takes a compasionate standpoint. Second in command Red Atkins (Cole Hauser) trusts Willis is making the right call. Soon they are pursued by the extremists, led by a hulking Peter Mensah, before King Leonidas kicked him into the Sarlak pit. The combat scenes are hard hitting, seemingly very well rehearsed and researched. The only problem for me was the overbearing and extended sequences of genocide, which are harrowing and quite tough to watch. When it’s combat based it’s a damn fine piece, with a rugged, thoughtful band of heroes who are an absolute joy to see in action. Rounding out the team are Eamonn Walker, Charles Ingram, Paul Francis, Chad Smith and a briefly seen Tom Skerritt as Willis’s commanding officer. Tough, muscular and no nonsense, with burgeoning compassion that gives that soldiers purpouse beyond the cold lethality of the mission. Fuqua has a terrific collection of lean and mean action flicks under his belt, and this is one of the best.