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.
While passing through Cairo during a sabbatical from the priesthood following World War II Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) receives an offer from Semelier Ben Cross) a collector of rare antiquities to join a British archeological excavation in the remote Turkana region of Kenya where a Christian Byzantine church has been unearthed. Although Merrin has lost his religion (he left the church after being forced by the Nazis to commit atrocities against people of his parish) the skilled archeologist accepts the mission out of curiosity: The pristinely preserved church dates back more than 1 000 years before Christianity even reached the East African plain. Once there Merrin anxiously heads to the excavation sight and enters the partially buried church to discover it has been vandalized--or so he thinks; a large wooden cross has been broken and hung upside down. He also encounters Dr. Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco) who runs a local hospital and informs the men that the last man in charge of the excavation had gone mad and was now in a sanitarium in Nairobi. The mystery thickens when a local boy Joseph (Remy Sweeney) shows signs of satanic possession. The Turkana blame the mysterious church for the unexplained supernatural activity including a woman's delivery of a Satan-like maggot-covered still born infant. Soon tension mounts between the Turkana and the British troops stationed there.
Poor Skarsgard. To his credit the veteran actor tries his best to add a dash of distinctiveness to his underdeveloped character Father Merrin. Skarsgard (King Arthur) supplies Merrin with an air of attitude a sort of aloofness that screams I don't owe anyone anything. Armed with brute strength and fearlessness (he moves a large concrete slab without breaking a sweat and crawls through unlit basements without ever flinching) Merrin is practically transformed into sexy religious superhero. But Skarsgard even can't escape the silly dialogue that explains what is self-explanatory. "If everyone died who buried them?" Merrin asks aloud outside a cemetery where a plague supposedly whiped out the village's population. Scorupco (Reign of Fire) meanwhile doesn't inject anything extra into her rather forgettable role as Sarah a rather sweet but boring physician. Her metamorphosis in an identical looking Regan MacNeil form the original 1973 Exorcist however pumps some much needed thrills into what's otherwise lackluster horror. One of the most memorable performances comes from Alan Ford (Brick Top Polford form Snatch) who plays a perpetually drunk archeologist with a putrid skin ailment. Ford's rendition of Jeffries is so alarmingly disgusting that it makes Lucifer look like a sweetie pie.
The best thing about Exorcist: The Beginning is its deceptively promising opening set in Africa in the mid 400s. It's an eerie scene bound to make audiences' hair stand on end as a lone bedraggled priest slogs through a dry and dusty plain littered with millions of corpses nailed to upside-down crosses. But in its post-World War II setting the film suffers a setback both in storytelling and visuals. The film was originally directed by Paul Schrader who replaced helmer John Frankenheimer who died before filming began. But producers reportedly thought Schrader's version wasn't frightening enough and handed the reins over to Renny Harlin (Driven) in hopes he would turn out a more spine-chilling rendition. But sadly there is no chilling of the spine to be experienced here. Harlin uses horror film clichés to spook the audience like the faithful light-going-out-in-dark-settings scenario that the film feels more like an episode of Scare Tactics. Harlin's special effects are laugh-out-loud funny too including his inane man-eating CGI hyenas with beaming blue eyes. The beasts move about the screen as if they have no weight or substance to them. What makes those cartoony hyenas even sillier though is the fact that their presence is not needed (they're hardly scary) or even explained which pretty much sums up the film's biggest problem: The spotty story leaves too many questions unanswered. The script credited to Caleb Carr and William Wisher and later revised by Alexi Hawley is so vague it's irritating.
With its twisty-turning plot and military setting Basic could be the love child of an illicit affair between The Usual Suspects and The General's Daughter; it even borrows the star of the latter. In Basic John Travolta plays Tom Hardy a former Army Ranger and interrogator extraordinaire who's now a DEA agent in Panama suspended from duty on suspicion of bribery. He's hitting the rebellious law enforcement officer's requisite bottle of Jack Daniels heavily--until an old friend on the local army base Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) calls him in to investigate the disappearances and probable deaths of an elite group of trainees and their commander Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L Jackson) during a training session in the Panamanian jungle. Staff investigator Lt. Julia Osbourne (Connie Nielsen) a plucky Southern gal who's none too pleased with Hardy's invasion of her turf is assigned to help Hardy question the unit's surviving members Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) and Dunbar (Brian Van Holt). As their stories unfold over a series of flashbacks the interrogators discover a military underworld of drugs murder and coercion--and the mysterious existence of a rogue Ranger unit called "Section 8." Now for an interrogation of our own. Is the plot convoluted? Sir yes sir! Is it too tricky for its own good? Sir yes sir! Thank you soldier. You may stand down.
The trigger-finger pointing winking cluck-clucking "gotcha" persona Travolta (Swordfish Domestic Disturbance) creates in Hardy is as appropriate to the story as it can possibly be; the way he manipulates his subjects under interrogation is much the same way the story manipulates its audience. He leads them--and the observant Lt. Osbourne--to believe one thing then pulls the rug out from under them to prove the old cliché of military movies: that nothing is as it seems. In Nielsen's (The Hunted One Hour Photo) Osbourne we're given a character who could lead us through the jungle of the plot (she discovers the "facts" at the same time as the audience so her reaction is meant I suppose to be ours) but since Hardy spends much of his time making her look and feel like an idiot she comes off as one and frankly so do we. The talented Jackson (Changing Lanes) mostly does the bellowing drill sergeant bit while Ribisi (Heaven) as the homosexual son of a high-ranking general talks like he has cotton wool in his mouth and moves and twitches like he's mildly brain-impaired. (His character's not supposed to be; he only got shot in the leg.) One bright spot in this movie is the featured role for hunky Van Holt (Windtalkers Black Hawk Down) whose chiseled good looks and heroic demeanor make him a shoo-in should anyone ever make a live-action Johnny Bravo movie.
Director John McTiernan has given audiences some heavy-duty action in Die Hard Die Hard With a Vengeance and The Hunt for Red October but he's also the director who brought us such gems as Rollerball and Last Action Hero so it's not surprising that in Basic we get some action and intrigue paired with the out-there story stylings and narrative confusion of some of his less successful work. Here each flashback brings new information that conflicts with what we've been told before and the story never really resolves those conflicts in any satisfying way. The "big twist" at the end instead of bringing it all together creates gaping holes in the plot or at least creates so much doubt in the story we've just spent an hour and a half watching that it's easy to get fed up with trying to figure it out. Naturally no one likes to be spoon-fed plot resolutions but in order for twists to work they have to give the audience something to focus its doubt on--they can't just call the whole kit and caboodle into question. We have to be able eventually to figure it out. But hey maybe we aren't supposed to work out the details; after all this movie with its catchy one-word title and colorful cast of characters is just begging for a sequel: Basic 2: Explaining the First Movie.