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Gladiator (2000)

Reviewed By Andrew Howe
Posted 05/21/00 17:16:50

"Overrated, but enjoyable nonetheless"
3 stars (Average)

Itís no secret that I harbour a weakness for historical epics which focus on heroic characters fighting the good fight for causes brave and true. Braveheart, Glory, Excalibur, The Last of the Mohicans Ė these films remind me that there are things worth fighting for, and times when it is better to go down standing up than to live a long and lonely life on your knees.

The pre-release hype led me to believe that Gladiator would be fit to be spoken of in the same sentence as the above films, but unfortunately it was not to be. As mindless entertainment it succeeds admirably, but with a little work it could have been considerably more, and represents as much a wasted opportunity as the oft-maligned Mission to Mars.

To a student of the twenty-first century, the notion that the public once flocked to stadiums to witness men butchering each other in cold blood is a rather abstract concept. History books tell us that this did actually happen, but itís difficult to picture such brutality in the mindís eye, since itís so far removed from modern-day morality that it seems the stuff of legend and make-believe.

Gladiator doesnít ram the awful reality home in the way that, say, Schindlerís List did with the Holocaust, since itís covered with enough gloss that it too seems to be little more than a flight of fancy. However, while it lacks grit, as a widescreen spectacle itís a tough act to follow.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Maximus (Russell Crowe), a general in the Roman Legion whose sense of duty leads him to forsake home and hearth for the dubious pleasure of slaughtering German barbarians. Having earned the trust of emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), he learns that he is to replace the ailing monarch ahead of Aureliusí amoral son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Not surprisingly, this leads to patricide, betrayal and the vaguely unnecessary murder of Maximusí family, proving it to be an honour he could have well lived without. A dispossessed Maximus is sold into slavery, and before long heís putting his military skills to good use in the gladiatorial arena. This opens the way for copious quantities of sand, blood and frenzied cheering, and thatís never a bad thing.

Thereís something about Ancient Rome which brings out the Cecil B. DeMille in even the most restrained of directors. Since Ridley Scott could never be accused of favouring an unassuming approach to filmmaking, itís no surprise that Gladiator makes Ben Hur look like Clerks. This is one film that needs to be seen on the big-screen, since the visuals pack a punch that would do Iron Mike proud, and downsizing Scottís majestic vision is the equivalent of listening to an AC/DC concert through a transistor radio.

It would be fair to say that never in the history of cinema has the majesty of Ancient Rome been so breathtakingly recreated. The opening battle is absolutely stunning Ė catapults hurl flaming missiles into the gloom, igniting the forest in a scene reminiscent of the napalm-induced destruction portrayed by Apocalypse Now, while men and animals engage in a frenzy of blood-letting amidst the blazing trees. The violence isnít as graphic as one might expect, but the sheer grandeur of the sequence still leaves you reeling.

Once the action shifts to Rome the CGI wizards weave their magic to present us with a stunning vision of a city whose grandiose architecture dwarfed anything which the children of the twentieth century have yet been able to devise. The Coliseum itself is the obvious centrepiece, the oppressive weight of its walls lending a larger-than-life element to the life-and-death struggles played out within. Given that Hollywoodís wardrobes probably contain enough Roman costumes to clothe the actual populace of the time, itís also no surprise that every actor, from the major players to the lowliest extra, is a walking advertisement for the fashion of the times.

When heís not busy overloading our senses with eye-candy, Scott finds time to indulge in a little of his trademark innovation. Much of the action is shot in an unfocussed style which looks like it belongs in a music video, while a couple of unusual dream sequences are certainly not the kind of thing you would expect to see in a historical drama. These flashy touches prove somewhat distracting Ė Blade Runner was an appropriate vehicle for this kind of gloss, but here itís at odds with the subject matter. Itís a history lesson for the MTV generation, and a little self-restraint might have enhanced the filmís impact.

On the other hand, a little less restraint would have improved the battle sequences immeasurably. The absence of graphic violence cloaks the proceedings in an aura of unreality, when by rights a modern-day retelling of such events should have you choking on your popcorn (though there is a scene involving an unusual treatment for a shoulder wound which accomplishes exactly that). In reality Iím not too upset at being spared the sight of men being hacked to pieces, but it does suggest that the filmís creators were more concerned with expanding the filmís appeal than assaulting the viewer with the true brutality of the times.

Having honed his skills at portraying hard men in the likes of Romper Stomper and L.A. Confidential, it comes as no surprise that Russell Crowe brings a suitable degree of stoicism to the pivotal role of Maximus. Despite his decision to use his natural accent (I wasnít aware that there were any Australian gladiators), he is never less than convincing as a man who has lost everything he holds dear to the petty evils of power and politics. His eyes betray his single-minded determination, and his voice echoes with the hollow ring of a man with both feet in the grave. Itís a powerful performance, and if The Insider wasnít enough to send him rocketing into the A-list, that oversight may well be rectified following this filmís release.

The rest of the cast donít scale the same heights, but theyíre still eminently watchable. On paper Joaquin Phoenix seemed a strange choice to play Commodus, but he services his role with distinction. His expressive eyes and whining vocal delivery perfectly capture Commodusí childlike petulance, inviting us to consider whether his talents may have been buried by a succession of thankless roles (time will tell Ė one fine performance does not a career make). Richard Harris and Derek Jacobi were born to play toga-clad politicians, so their performances can almost be taken for granted, while Connie Nielson almost makes me forget how much I hated her in Mission to Mars. The major players are rounded out by Oliver Reed, who turns in a surprisingly capable performance given that his acting career took second place to drunkenly needling talk-show hosts from about 1970 onwards (we can expect that his death during the shoot will see many posit that this role might have heralded a new beginning, but that would be taking things a little too far).

Given that the film partners fine acting with majestic spectacle, we might have been forgiven for assuming that Gladiator would prove to be a film for the ages. However, there is still the little matter of a script to attend to, and it is here that things go terribly awry.

No less than three writers were involved with the screenplay, and their combined back catalogue reveals precious little affinity for stirring historical epics. Shadowlands, Any Given Sunday, Amistad, the execrable First Knight Ė these films are different beasts entirely, and we are left to question why the success of a high-budget blockbuster was entrusted to men such as these when the likes of Randall Wallace (Braveheart, The Man in the Iron Mask) would doubtless have jumped at the chance to return to familiar territory.

By way of comparison, consider the almost-universal appeal of Braveheart. The heart of that film is its vibrant characters Ė William Wallace is a well-rounded, intriguing individual, and heís partnered with a supporting cast which looms large on the screen. Hamish, Stephen the Irishman, Robert the Bruce Ė each of these characters is well-drawn, likeable and possessed of considerable depth, and Edward Longshanks is the perfect foil for our merry band, since heís intelligent, ruthless and possessed of a certain charisma which prevents him from becoming a one-note villain.

Gladiator, on the other hand, jettisons character development in favour of big-screen action, and in so doing becomes an empty spectacle indeed. Despite a 150 minute running time few of the characters are explored in any depth, making a long movie seem surprisingly lightweight.

Maximus is not a particularly interesting individual Ė he possesses few of the faults and foibles which allow a character to live and breathe, and his obsession with vengeance precludes him from becoming a multi-faceted hero. It is difficult to become invested in his fate, since he obviously believes he has nothing to live for, and this ensures that the viewer becomes divorced from the proceedings at a relatively early juncture. Of his fellow gladiators only two are permitted to rise above the level of faceless drones, and even they possess few distinctive characteristics (one of them, a hulking man-mountain, delivers about two lines in the entire film).

Commodus fares somewhat better, primarily because he enjoys a disproportionate share of the available screen time and is a reasonably lively soul by comparison. The only other character who manages to evoke a strong reaction is Maximusí manservant, a likeable and courageous individual who, if he had been used as a model for the rest of the participants, would have ensured that the film reached the heights to which it aspired.

The plot is also relatively uninspired, leaving little to chance in its connect-the-dots approach to chronicling Maximusí quest. It plays out exactly as you think it will, bereft of the entertaining digressions which distinguished Braveheart from the crowd. That latter film focussed on several relationships Ė The Bruce and his father, Longshanks and his son, Wallace and Hamish Ė which were not strictly necessary to advance the plot, but nevertheless cemented the characters and enabled the viewer to identify with their motivations and desires, while also acting as the catalyst for a number of memorable scenes. Gladiator, on the other hand, plays it straight Ė Maximus is betrayed, press-ganged into service at a gladiator school, and sent to Rome to engage in mortal combat, while the only other diversion is the ongoing friction between Commodus and his sister (which is like a soap opera with incestuous overtones). Itís not exactly boring, but if the script had expanded its scope it would have enlivened the proceedings considerably.

A number of the scriptís decisions also fly in the face of screenwriting wisdom. For example, one of the high points of the film is a battle between Maximus and a gladiator who was never bested during the countless years he plied his trade. However, we never hear a word about Maximusí potential nemesis until he first sets foot inside the Coliseum, which defuses much of the sceneís impact. It would have been as simple as having one of the supporting characters mention his name in hallowed tones earlier in the piece, and straight away youíve built a sense of anticipation which would make his appearance in the arena a cause for dread.

Similarly, a major set-piece concerns the efforts of a small army of gladiators to avoid a drawn-out massacre courtesy of their heavily-armed and infinitely more mobile opponents. However, since few of the participants rise above the level of disposable cannon-fodder it is difficult to become personally involved in their life-or-death struggle. If the script had spent even five minutes providing these extras with a little personality we would have been roused to fury as the arrows slammed home, but instead we are left to view the carnage with a sense of detachment, and what should have been an involving sequence is reduced to an extended advertisement for top-notch stunt work.

Doubtless many will be prepared to forgive Gladiator these failings, since the high-octane action sequences, eye-popping special effects and powerful performances are reason enough to praise the film. However, I believe that Scott and his cronies missed their chance to create something more, to engineer a film which would have spirited us away to another place, a place where vibrant characters and stirring, emotional scenes weave a spell which lasts long after the closing credits have faded. Instead we are left with another case study in the art of excess, another example of the way in which stunning visuals and top-shelf acting can never compensate for a script which forgets that, at their core, films are about people, and soulless characters will leave the audience both untouched and unmoved.

Gladiator is like an empty piŮata Ė a beautiful but ultimately hollow affair, promising considerably more than it delivers. Enjoy the game while it lasts, but temper it with the knowledge that transient thrills will be your only reward, for at the end of the day youíll be going home empty-handed.

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