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GLADIATOR(director: Ridley Scott; screenwriters: story by David H. Franzoni/John Logan/William Nicholson; cinematographer: John Mathieson; editor: Pietro Scalia; cast: Russell Crowe (Maximus), Joaquin Phoenix (Commodus), Connie Nielsen (Lucilla), Oliver Reed (Proximo), Richard Harris (Marcus Aurelius), Derek Jacobi (Gracchus), Djimon Hounsou (Juba), Tomas Arana (Quintus), Tommy Flanagan (Cicero), David Hemmings (Cassius, emcee of the games), David Schofield (Falco), John Shrapnel (Gaius), Ralf Moeller (Hagen), Spencer Treat Clark (Lucius); Runtime: 150; Dreamworks SKG; 2000)
“The film is a reminder of the old Hollywood sword-and-sandal films of grandeur and muscle and frivolity.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Here’s a film British director Ridley Scott definitely made for the masses, a large-budgeted (somewhere over 100 million bucks) digital effects epic. It’s a Star Wars film for grown-ups with the intention to overwhelm you with its technical feats and please your senses with its photography and dazzle you with the Roman Colosseum gladiator events. The film keeps reminding you in intervals of every 15-minutes or so, that its aim is primarily to please the crowd.

The epic gets over with a functional script to its credit, some fine bursts of mannered acting by Russell Crowe who is asked to carry the film and ably manages to ground it on his furtive looks of steel and his intense inner need for revenge, and the film’s palatable heroic story of good versus evil–the film is a reminder of the old Hollywood sword-and-sandal films of grandeur and muscle and frivolity. A few of those Hollywood oldies that the film takes after are: Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, and The Fall of the Roman Empire. Though, it lacks the kind of political intrigue to be considered in the same class with Kubrick’s last fling with Hollywood, Spartacus. In modern times, it comes closest to aping Braveheart in its action sequences.

Russell Crowe is the great Roman General Maximus in the Rome of 180 A.D. who is asked by the dying philosophical tyrant turned seeker of a better legacy, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), to rule Rome after he dies: to end its corruption and make sure that the senate gets control of the empire so that the empire is turned into a republic. The love between Aurelius and Maximus is mutual, much like a father and son relationship.

Maximus wins a bloody battle over Germania, the last resistance from the barbarians, which takes 10-minutes of the film opening to accomplish. General Maximus commands his troops to “unleash hell” on their underdog adversaries with an outpouring of arrows and flaming canisters to fill the screen with blood and gore and mud, and a beautifully framed picture of the barbarians’ woods on fire and its landscape turned into an eerie hue of bluish-gray ash. Scott succeeds in his visceral opening just like Spielberg did in Saving Private Ryan, of grabbing the audience’s attention and keeping it for most of the film.

When Marcus’s cowardly son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), is told by his father that he has given the empire to Maximus because he doesn’t think he would be a fair ruler, his unappreciative son kills him and inherits the crown. The proud general refuses to pledge his loyalty to him and is arrested and sentenced to be slain immediately, but manages to stave off his executioners and return to his farm in Spain. But unbeknownst to the new emperor he arrives too late to save his family, as his wife and son are crucified. The general then is captured and becomes a slave and is sold to the gladiator-entrepeneur Proximo (Oliver Reed-he died before finishing the film).

Proximo, an ex-slave gladiator who won his freedom from Marcus Aurelius, considers himself to be in the entertainment business, of giving the public a good show for their money. He, to his pocketbook’s regret, must work the provinces (in North Africa) since Marcus Aurelius banned his gladiator show in Rome five years ago.

The new emperor in an effort to please the mobs, orders gladiator games for 150 days at the Colosseum in Rome. Meanwhile, the gladiator becomes of a single mind to get revenge on his foe as he pictures in his mind his ravaged family and feels that they are waiting for him in heaven, a revenge theme used by so many Westerns to inspire their hero to take action. The gladiator is given a slim chance that he can have his freedom restored by winning in the arena and meeting up with Commodus again.

In Rome the emperor, played with a feverish but transparent perversity by Phoenix, is desperate for some kind of affection and is wild for his older sister the stately and beautiful Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). But she has this crush on the general, who sired her eight year old son (Spencer Treat Clark). She never revealed the true identity of the father, so the general who rejected her doesn’t know that his son is the next heir to the throne; and, more importantly, the emperor doesn’t know.

When the games begin in Rome, which are promoted like I suppose modern World Wrestling Federation events are, Proximo’s advice to the gladiator is “Please the crowd and Rome will be yours.” Maximus fights to stay alive in the Colosseum while awaiting the chance to take his revenge on Commodus. He snarls and says things in a low but sure-fired baritone voice, that is heavily laced with a macho Australian accent, such as “In this life or the next, I will have my vengeance.” He survives a historical battle re-creation by taking on lions and other gladiators and becomes the crowd favorite and gets to meet the chagrined Commodus in person, who has the only funny line in this flick as he remarks: “My history’s a little hazy, but didn’t the barbarians lose the battle of Carthage?”

The gladiator sees Lucilla in the dark dungeon of his present residence, as they exchange greetings and catch up on all the missing details of their lives since they last met. The plan is for him to escape with the help of the senator who is for the people, Gracchus. He is played by the great British actor Derek Jacobi, who could have done more if only asked. He seems to move across the senate floor as gracefully as possible, seemingly, sleepwalking through his thin part.

With all the rogue parties agreeing to a plan of escape for Maximus, after which he will lead his old army stationed outside the gates of Rome to move against Commodus and help restore a republic; that is, if Maximus can just stay alive for a little while longer. The climax to the 2 1/2 hour epic comes when the escape plan is foiled by the cunningly insecure Commodus, who then devices a plan to poison Maximus and subsequently gets him to fight a duel in front of the Colosseum crowd so that he can look like the conquerer of Maximus in front of the crowds’ festive eyes and thereby get the people back on his side.

The film is gaudy but it is entertaining, it is always a pleasure to look at even if it is disdainful to think what crass aims it is up to. Oliver Reed did a feisty job and stole a few scenes toward the end of the film with his cynical performance. The neurotic clutching-on-to-dear-life performance of determined evil by Joaquin Phoenix, made him a formidable villain. Russell Crowe relished the fight scenes and gave the film exactly what it called for. Connie Nielsen added some class to the storytelling. The film did match the uneven quality of the old Hollywood film, the kind of standard epic that hasn’t been made for a number of years and probably won’t be made after this one because of the prohibitive high budget. Gladiator should be well-received by the public, after all it is giving them what it thinks they want. If you notice sex is all but absent, there is instead plenty of violence. Ah! the public’s taste is ever so fickle!


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”