by Jon Bastian
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There’s a good rule of thumb for judging movies before you see them. Popularity is inversely proportional to the quality of a film. The more tickets that sell, the more it probably sucks. Yes, there are exceptions — American Beauty for example — but there are far more that prove the rule. The aforementioned film did manage to snag the Oscar for Best Picture, but Gladiator has sold a buttload of tickets.
It’s hard to know where to begin with this Ridley Scott Roman follies mishmash. It does hit its target exactly as intended; Scott and company wanted to make an old-fashioned sword and sandals epic, and in this they have succeeded. But there are so many other levels on which they fail miserably that it’s hard to chose the main culprit. A good place to start is Russell Crowe, who also managed to snag an Oscar nomination last year, but judging from the performance here, it’s hard to see why. This isn’t entirely Crowe’s fault. His character is set up as the classic man who is wronged, and once injustice has been done to him, he’s forced to play the quietly brooding martyr for the rest of the over-long ride. Consequently, it’s impossible to connect with his character, or feel for him, or really care much what happens to him. If you don’t have that, then you don’t have the key to this film. It’s hard to find the key when they’re only playing one note.
Crowe stars as Maximus, a Roman general fighting in the German campaign under emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). The emperor tells Maximus that he’s going to proclaim him heir, but before he can do that, he’s offed by his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who just doesn’t feel loved, and boy, are we reminded of that motivation about every other scene. Commodus sentences Maximus to death. Naturally, Maximus escapes his fate (he is the star, after all) only to return home to find his wife and son murdered. Obligatory Syd Field bullshit out of the way (our hero now has his “ghost”) Maximus is free to be captured and sold into slavery as a gladiator. He soon winds up in the service of Proximo, played by the late, great Oliver Reed, and I swear I’ve seen more Oliver Reed appearances in movies the year since he died than I had in the entire previous decade. When Commodus becomes emperor, he re-opens the arena for games and Proximo doesn’t have to play the provinces any more and if you have half a brain, you can guess the rest.
If a hero we can’t connect with is major flaw number one here, then Ridley Scott’s atrocious direction of the action sequences is major flaw number two. I don’t know what went wrong, because he’s managed to shoot coherent action in chaotic circumstances before (the finale of White Squall) but in Gladiator, it’s damn near impossible to figure out what’s happening to whom during the fight sequences. The only clue we usually have is to remember that Russell Crowe is the hero. Otherwise, everything is shot too close, cut too fast and has all the excitement of watching grass grow. Yes, there’s splashing blood aplenty on display here, but it might as well be spraying out of thin air. And someone might want to mention that if you kill a tiger that’s lying on top of you, you’ll probably be crushed to death by dead tiger.
Other ridiculousness perpetrated: once again, the twisting of history. Of course, this does fit in with the recreation of a 50’s epic, since the 50’s were not known for their attempt to recreate anything resembling reality. The most heinous example back then was the finale of the sequel to The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, in which mincing emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson) was impaled on a spear by our noble hero. Gladiator blows that rewrite out of the water. For one thing, Marcus Aurelius, whose title was Augustus, proclaimed his son Commodus as heir and Caesar about three years before he died. Second, his death wasn’t homicide. He died of natural causes, in Rome, not Germany. Finally, although Commodus actually did fight in the arena, he didn’t… well, meet the fate shown here. He was actually poisoned by members of his household staff, and the man appointed as his successor was a general, Pertinax, since he died without heirs and women could not inherit the throne.
None of that would matter if the other elements worked. Since they don’t, it’s easy to quibble and pick at the details. There are some fine performances on display here. Oliver Reed is, as he always was, marvelous and bigger than life. Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius) has a lot of face time but few words as a conscientious senator and Djimon Hounsou (Amistad) is effective as one of Crowe’s gladiator cohorts, although he’s essentially a device used to remind us (constantly) that Maximus is pissed off about losing his family. Richard Harris, who would have starred in this film thirty years ago, hits the right note as Aurelius, but is in and out far too soon. Joaquin Phoenix is the best of the bunch as the whiniest little emperor, although, again, far too many of his scenes are only there to remind us of his simplistic motivation: “Nobody loves me, so I’m evil, dammit.”
If you want to see a good gladiator epic, watch Spartacus again. If you want to see a bad gladiator epic, there are shelves and shelves of them in the 50’s section of the video store.
If you want to see this Gladiator epic, wait for the DVD, but then only if what you really want to see is already rented.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles, and a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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