Gladiator (2000)

Political junkies may be amused by Gladiator, the burly and boring new epic directed by Ridley Scott. This, after all, is the story of a former warrior who has a chance at ruling his land, until the spoiled son of royalty brings him low. The film even features a noble senator who wants to boot the son of royalty out of power. Read Gladiator as the John McCain story and you might stay interested in it for a while.

It’s not often that a movie exists on several levels of rip-off. Gladiator doesn’t only remind you of earlier, better sword-and-sandal sagas like Spartacus and Ben-Hur. When the hero, the great Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe), narrowly escapes assassination and returns home to find his wife and son brutally slain, you half expect mad Maximus to jump into a modified police car and run down some Aussie motorcycle punks. And the hate-athon between Maximus and Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the unworthy blood heir to the throne of Caesar, has a distinct Ten Commandments whiff about it: Maximus/Moses is the superior son that Caesar/Pharoah wishes he had instead of getting stuck with Commodus/Rameses.

Critics have also compared the early battle sequence in Gladiator to the early battle sequence in Saving Private Ryan, with which any reasonable filmgoer must beg to differ. The key difference is that, for all its jerky camera movements and shutter-angle reduction for a sped-up, strobe effect, the Saving Private Ryan sequence was actually possible to follow. Ridley Scott uses the same technique — he had actually used it before in his inept G.I. Jane, so I can’t say he’s swiping from Spielberg — but the editing is so ferocious, the action filmed so close in, and the lighting so punishingly dim, that you literally can’t tell what’s going on. This also goes for the scenes inside the Coliseum, when Maximus returns to Rome as a slave and gladiator bent on vengeance. He kills lots of opponents, I guess — who can tell?

You know you’re not in for a subtle evening at the movies when the hero is named Maximus, which sounds like a brand of condom. Russell Crowe does his best to breathe life into this bronze statue of a character, and it’ll be a deep irony if, after years of complex performances in box-office failures like L.A. Confidential and The Insider, this stoic beefcake role is the one that puts him over the top. Joaquin Phoenix, by virtue of having fun with his rotten Commodus and sharing the fun with us, skitters away with the movie. When a movie hero is this opaque, one’s interest naturally shifts to the decadent villain and the actor enjoying playing him.

Has Ridley Scott lost it? Gladiator is one of the worst-looking movies ever made by a former visual genius. The Coliseum, mostly created in a computer and populated by crowds also created in a computer, is compelling proof that CGI has a long way to go. Scott even uses CGI on poor Oliver Reed, who died during filming; a stand-in with Reed’s digitally mapped face plays Reed’s final scene. It looks okay, but subliminally there is still something off about it — I couldn’t focus on a word the fake Reed was saying.

Gladiator marches grimly to its conclusion; three screenwriters can’t add much spice to this reheated beef stew. If a gladiator film doesn’t work as spectacle or as bloodthirsty action, what’s left? Drama? It’s dead on that level, too, unless you haven’t seen Braveheart or even Hamlet, from which the climactic fight borrows. Gladiator is a monument to meat-eating retro masculinity — I can imagine the guys on The Man Show raving about it — but that’s finally all it is. It will be amusing, though, to listen to all the guys talk about how much they loved Gladiator while avoiding the uncomfortable subtext of why they loved it.

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Explore posts in the same categories: action/adventure, drama, overrated

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