Gladiator (2000)

         At the tail end of the 20th Century as film celebrated its centennial, moviemakers were
 reinvigorating tired genres by applying new technologies. Thus, Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood
 offered revisionist approaches to the Western in
Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven,
 respectively. Mel Gibson pumped up the historical epic with
Braveheart while James Cameron
 revived the disaster flick (and mixed in a period romance) and crafted the blockbuster
 Steven Spielberg rejuvenated the war movie with
Saving Private Ryan, a film that in its opening
 sequences closely approximated the experiences of the battlefield. Taking his cue from most of
 the aforementioned directors and adding his own special touches, Ridley Scott has taken on the
 quasi-biblical epic, known affectionately as the “sword and sandal film,” in the generically

         In his best work (i.e.,
The Duellists, Blade Runner, Alien), Scott has demonstrated his
 ability to take the audience into a completely realized, distinctive world. Even in his lesser work
Legend, White Squall) the director has realized astonishing visual flourishes that maintain
 the audience’s interest.
Gladiator is no exception transporting viewers from its opening battle
 sequences in the forests of ancient Germania to sun-drenched Northern Africa to the inevitable
 conclusion in Rome. Working with production designer Arthur Max, costume designer Janty
 Yates and cinematographer John Mathieson (the latter two also worked on the terrific
Plunkett & Macleane, directed by Scott’s son Jake), he has crafted a detailed and fully
 realized ancient world.

         What mars it occasionally, though, is the dependence on editing techniques that are
 meant to punch up the battle scenes but which instead make them look fake. In the opening
 sequence -- where the hero Maximus (Russell Crowe) leads the Roman army in battle against the
 more primitive forces of Germania -- some of the action suffers from this digitizing of the images.
 Still, as a set piece, this sequence ranks as a cross between Gibson’s
Braveheart and
Saving Private Ryan. Through handheld camera, one gets all but the smell of
 battle; There’s the sight of fire-tipped arrows flying through the air, the sound of brimstone
 crashing and the crackling fires which result, as well as the clang and clack of swords against
 shields. It is impressive, if dispassionate, filmmaking. (Mathieson also bathes much of this part
 of the film in a icy blues and grays to convey the coldness of the weather and the darkness of
 the less developed world.)

         As a reward for his victory, Maximus has one request, to return to his farm in Spain where
 his wife and son await. The ailing emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), though, has other
 plans -- he has decided that the general should succeed him as leader, in part because the
 military man is honest. The emperor’s scheming son Commodus (a fleshy Joaquin Phoenix)
 arrives too late for the battle but in time to realize that his father doesn’t exactly see him as
 kingly material. In a pique of anger, he seizes power and orders the death of his rival Maximus
 and Maximus’ family. Since Russell Crowe is the hero of the film and it’s only 20 minutes or so
 in, you don’t need to be a genius to figure out he escapes death and rushes to his home in
 Spain, where he finds the charred remains of what was his home. He is taken into slavery
 where he is trained to fight as a gladiator. Proving his prowess, Maximus then heads for the
 big time -- the Colosseum in the capital and a chance for revenge.

         The main problems with
Gladiator stem from its script, which is credited to three writers.
 David Franzoni (
Amistad) penned the original story and the director brought in John Logan
RKO 281, Any Given Sunday) to punch up the dialogue. For the crucial middle section,
 where Maximus trains under the watchful eye of Proximo (Oliver Reed in his last film role),
 William Nicholson (
Shadowlands, First Knight) tweaked the material. One can see the
 distinct styles mirrored in some ways through the visualization by Scott and his team via the
 use of color and dialogue. As already noted, the early sequences are dark and rely more on
 action, the middle part is brighter and, in Reed’s case, poignant. (In a pep talk to his warriors,
 Proximo says “We cannot choose how we die, but we can [choose] how we are remembered.”
 Later, he tells Maximus that in order to be a success, he “must win the crowd” -- advice that
 an old pro imparts to a younger with potential.) The last third of
Gladiator, set in a Rome
 teeming with people and intrigue, ties up the loose strands and allows the characters and
 the audience, a catharsis. (There’s also a terrific overhead shot of the Colosseum that recalls
 the blimp’s eye view on telecasts of football games.)

         Often in his career, Scott has been heralded more as a visualist, yet he has managed
 to elicit fine performances from his casts and in
Gladiator that holds. Veterans like Richard
 Harris, Oliver Reed and David Hemmings (as a Roman senator) tear into their parts with gusto.
 Connie Nielsen as the emperor’s daughter Lucilla (with whom Maximus has a shared past),
 possesses a regal bearing, looks great in her colorful costumes and manages to suggest
 layers of emotion with a single look. Ralph Moeller and Djimon Hounsou make impressions
 in underwritten parts as fellow fighters. Derek Jacobi also shows up as a scheming senator
 which is a double-edged appearance. For those who don’t remember the superb BBC
"I, Claudius," the actor merely offers a fine supporting turn. For those who do,
 Jacobi’s presence is an unfortunate reminder of that far-better written drama. (It also doesn’t
 help when Commodus makes a reference to his ancestor Claudius in a later scene.)

         Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is somewhat problematic. An odd choice to play such a
 malevolent character, the actor is to be commended for his willingness to tackle the part. At
 times, he is suitably menacing and cunning, but by adopting a pseudo-British accent and
 opting for a theatrical style (that occasionally borders on camp), he often undercuts
 Commodus’ evil intentions. Indeed, several scenes that should have induced gasps were
 met with gales of unintentional laughter.

         Russell Crowe as Maximus continues his ascent in Hollywood and in some ways, the role
 mirrors the actor. Maximus is not an easy man. He is opinionated, clever, knows what he wants
 and how to get it -- a born leader who also is a man of the earth (before each bout, Maximus
 reaches down and scoops up a handful of soil). From all accounts, so is Crowe, whose onset
 antics have been documented and who spends his spare time on his ranch Down Under.
 Since his early days in Australian films, the actor has built an impressive body of work in
 which he has been sweet (the shy dishwasher in
Proof, the gay son in The Sum of Us) and
 scary (the skinhead in
Romper Stomper). His breakthrough US film, L.A. Confidential,
 tapped both those sides as well as allowing him to demonstrate a sexy charisma. Following
 on the heels of his Oscar-nominated performance as the overweight, fiftysomething tobacco
 company whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand in
The Insider, Crowe solidifies his standing as an
 actor of range and power. While Maximus in
Gladiator doesn’t give him the full spectrum of
 some of his other roles -- there is a decided lack of humor in the script -- it does let the actor
 carry an American-made film and will undoubtedly rocket him up the chain in Hollywood.

         If there’s an overall message to
Gladiator, beyond the idea that society has not changed
 much in its quest for some form of entertainment as diversion, it escaped me. Despite the
 uneven screenplay, though, it ultimately delivers on the thrills and action and undoubtedly that
 is what it’s all about -- the “show” in show business.

Rating:                         B
MPAA Rating:            R for intense, graphic combat
Running time:            155 mins
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.