MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Russell Crowe (Maximus), Joaquin Phoenix (Commodus), Connie Nielsen (Lucilla), Oliver Reed (Proximo), Derek Jacobi (Gracchus), Djimon Hounsou (Juba), Richard Harris (Marcus Aurelius), David Schofield (Falco)
After several years of major releases, it has finally become clear what the DreamWorks strategy is: Each summer, they try to revive some long-dormant Hollywood genre by giving it a splashy, special-effects-laden modern spin. In 1998, they successfully revived the flag-waving World War II epic with Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." Last summer, they tried (with considerably less success) to bring back the spectacle of the haunted house with Jan De Bont's "The Haunting" (1999).
This summer, however, DreamWorks is going for the unimaginable with their most expensive movie to date: "Gladiator," a $103-million attempt to resurrect the long-dead ancient Roman epic, a once steadfast Hollywood genre that has been defunct since the mid-1960s when big hits like "Ben-Hur" (1959) and "Spartacus" (1960) were eventually overshadowed by colossal financial failures like "Cleopatra" (1963). "Gladiator" is an old-fashioned sword-and-sandal tale with graphic violence and a slick gloss of sentimentality. It almost works.
"Gladiator" opens with the Romans battling the Germanic barbarian tribes in Germania around 180 A.D. Maximum (Russell Crowe), a Roman from the Spanish province (although he speaks with a British accent--go figure), is a highly venerated general who leads his armies to great victories (for the historical record, Rome never managed to defeat the Germans). He is so successful and loved, that the dying Caesar, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), asks him to accept power when he dies and give the power back to the Senate so that Rome may become a republic again.
Marcus Aurelius' ambitious and cruel son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), has other plans, and when the Caesar dies he executes Maximums ' family and attempts to have Maximus killed so that power will be maintained on the throne. Maximus escapes, but winds up in slavery where he is bought by an ex-gladiator-turned-profiteer named Proximus (Oliver Reed), who trains him to become a great gladiator.
In ancient Rome, gladiators were sports heroes who were loved and followed by the crowds. Several times in the film, it is emphasized that Rome is not the Caesar or the Senate or even really the people: Rome is the mob. Whatever those bloodthirsty crowds of 50,000 in the Colosseum want, they get. "Win the crowd," Proximus tells Maxiums, which he does by becoming the best gladiator in the Roman Empire.
When Commodus discovers that Maximus is still alive and well, he cannot have him killed because he is loved too much by the crowds. Even when he stacks the odds against Maximus--such as staging a fight against the only other undefeated Roman gladiator and putting a couple of hungry tigers in the ring as well--Maximus is still victorious and, in the process, becomes even more popular. Because of his immense popularity, Maximus is able to begin scheming a way to dethrone Commodus, and he is aided by Commodus' sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), with whom he was once romantically involved, and a Senator named Gracchus (Derek Jacobi).
The story is much less-confusing than it sounds on paper, but director Ridley Scott ("Blade Runner") take a full two and a half hours to tell it. The screenplay, cobbled together in bits and pieces by three screenwriters while shooting was in progress, plays it fast and loose with the historical facts. Maximus is a purely fictional creation, although most of the others appear in historical record.
A great deal of time and money was invested in recreating Rome in all its decadent splendor, and for the record, "Gladiator" is a dark, but visually astounding piece of work. Using computer effects (some of which are better than others), the filmmakers attempt to recreate the spectacle of being in the Colosseum with 50,000 screaming Romans looking down. They include an overhead tracking shot that starts above the Roman streets and moves over the Colosseum, giving us a bird's eye view of the scope and scale of the ancient Roman world (it also makes an interesting connection to modern sports obsession, as the shot is quite reminiscent of the overhead blimp shots that are so common in NFL football games).
While "Gladiator" suffers from an excess of almost sickening sentimentality and a jagged narrative that moves in an often lurching fashion, the film is perfectly cast. They could not have found a better actor to play Maximus than Russell Crowe, who radiates both the power and intelligence necessary for the role. In almost every part he has played, from the neo-Nazi skinhead in "Romper Stomper" (1993), to the violence-prone detective in "L.A. Confidential" (1997), to the embattled corporate whistle-blower in "The Insider" (1999), Crowe exudes raw strength and anger.
Joaquin Phoenix is perfect for the role of Commodus for exactly the opposite reasons. Often shot with overhead lighting that darkens his deep eye sockets, thus giving him the appearance of a skull, Phoenix excels at being menacing in a complete despicable way. The filmmakers stack the deck against him, giving him the clichŽ effeminate qualities that always characterize cowardly Roman dictators, while also giving him hints of incestuous desire for his sister and even the suggestion of pedophilia.
When "Gladiator" eventually fails, it is because it tries too hard. After all, this a film that was written during principle photography, so it is likely that the story is going to suffer. This didn't stop Scott from trying to fashion a film that would out-emote "Braveheart," and it is here that the film grinds to a dead halt. Scott tries to milk every bit of sentimentality he can from Maximus' slaughtered wife and child, and his simple wish to "go home," which becomes the fuel for his battle.
This is tactical mistake in the story department, as the intrigue of political scheming and the bloody display of gladiatorial battle far outweigh familial sentiment, and it makes one impatient. "Gladiator" has its moments, but those moments are sprinkled throughout an overlong narrative that is never quite sure where it's going or what its purpose is.
©2000 James Kendrick