Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
Following a brief history lesson and one of the most asinine opening sequences in recent movie history it becomes apparent that four friends--Caleb (Steven Strait) Pogue (Taylor Kitsch) Reid (Toby Hemingway) and Tyler (Chace Crawford)--possess superhuman powers. In fact the four share an unbreakable bond: Direct descendants of the original settlers of Ipswich Colony during the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s they all inherited their ancestors’ supernatural powers. When they turn 18 they “ascend ” gaining even more potent--but addictive--powers. With Caleb’s 18th just days away his mother (Wendy Crewson) worries about him because each time a magical power is put to use the user ages prematurely and the powers are addictive. But with his girlfriend (Laura Ramsey) in grave danger and an outsider (Sebastian Stan) threatening to infringe on the group’s sacred name and ancestry will Caleb be able to resist? Well it’s official: If you want to break into acting looks are everything. If you look fresh out of the pages of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog you can act--even if you can’t act! The guys in The Covenant might not be quite that bad but the acting’s just not pretty especially compared to these dudes (it’s a backhanded compliment!). Strait (Undiscovered) Covenant’s resident movie veteran with five films under his belt absolutely has enough Abercrombie in him to warrant infinite chances to get it right but he makes Keanu Reeves look like Robin Williams--or a snail like a cheetah. The rest of the actors tend to overact where Strait underacts. Kitsch a bottle beefcake with one hell of an ironic last name and Hemingway (an equally ironic last name) both seem to think they’re in some throwaway teen horror flick instead of a throwaway supernatural thriller. And the other relative newcomer Stan comes close to decency but undoes his good towards the end. Uwe Boll gets a lot of flak for his films but how ‘bout throwing some hate Renny Harlin’s way?! Harlin has the ability to be a good director--as evidenced on Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger--but that ability has been M.I.A. for over a decade. Fresh off 2004’s clunkeriffic duo of Exorcist: The Beginning and Mindhunters (the latter not being released until last year) Harlin has unfortunately added to his canon o’ crap with The Covenant. Though not nearly as much his fault as it is the actors’ the film remains a directorial mess no thanks to the muddled script from The Forsaken writer J.S. Cardone. Despite the characters trying to spell the story out for us it’s still somewhat hazy and its brief moments of clarity provide little to enjoy. Nice cinematography allows for scarce fun but such scenes turn the movie into an underwhelming Matrix/Underworld hybrid in place of an actual mystery. All in all some teenagers might appreciate the thrills and the loud music but fans of the occult surely won’t.
Two young girls are dead the apparent victims of a serial rapist-murderer. Called in for questioning is Henry Hearst (Hackman) Puerto Rico's most prominent tax attorney. Hard-nosed cop Freeman and his loose-cannon assistant (Thomas Jane) smell a rat -- Hearst's alibis don't add up his Internet activities are on the barely legal side and he hasn't made the French Connection with his troubled trophy wife (Monica Bellucci) in quite some time. Just when you're about to write off the movie as a 110-minute episode of "Law & Order " a major plot twist falls from the sky and crushes what is left of the film's believability.
Model-turned-actress Bellucci ("Bram Stoker's Dracula") is a pleasant surprise in her first major U.S. role. She delivers a few lines in her exotic voice looks alternately alluring and enigmatic in lip-glossy close-ups and does little else ... but what she does she does well. Hackman (two Oscars) gives an uneven performance effectively conveying hidden shame and guilt but lapsing into Shatner-esque delivery in moments of nervous indignation. Freeman (three Oscar noms give him one already) helps redeem the film revisiting familiar territory as the no-nonsense detective.
Director Stephen Hopkins who cut his teeth on horror and action flicks ("Lost in Space " "Predator 2") brings the tricks of his previous trade to the psychodrama genre. Sometimes the unusual marriage works as in the flashback scenes that meld Freeman's interrogation with the other characters' memories. But he succumbs to the temptation to show off the exotic surroundings with vertigo-inducing camera work creating an atmosphere of artificial tension that the stumbling story line can't sustain.