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Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 5 May 2000

Directed by Ridley Scott.

Starring Russell Crowe, 
Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, 
Djimon Hounsou, David Hemmings, 
Derek Jacobi, Oliver Reed 
and Richard Harris.

Written by David Franzoni, John Logan, 
William Nicholson.

After some rumbling with the Huns in the forests of Germania, where eastern Europe now stands, circa 180 A.D., Gladiator starts out like a spaghetti Western. The hero returns home to find his wife and family gone, and must deal with his anguish thereof. He then is thrown into slavery (Ben-Hur), trains to be a gladiator and becomes a hero (Spartacus), and eventually has it out one-on-one with the person who did him wrong (The Fall of the Roman Empire). There is also a comely upper-class maid of Rome who wears the best lounging pajamas since Bella Darvi in The Egyptian

With Hollywood plundering around for something, anything that could be considered a "proven commodity" in order to justify skyrocketing costs -- this summer will see movie versions of Charlie's Angels and Rocky and Bullwinkle, and there's even talk of -- save us -- Josie and the Pussycats -- someone hit upon reviving the sword-and-sandal genre. There are even echoes of the late, lamented Steve Reeves in Hercules when Russell Crowe appears in a loincloth and chains.

And somebody must've seen footage of the digitalized settings for The Phantom Menace, clutched their heart, and cried out, "Eureka! I see Rome where Pompey stood!" Thus, thanks to the miracle of modern science, we get the glory that was Rome and then some, and it is super-duper. There is a coliseum, with adjustable awnings to shade the thousands of spectators, that just about beats anything the producer Samuel Bronston -- whose recreation of the Roman Forum for Fall of the Roman Empire still holds the record as the biggest outdoor set ever built -- could've come up with.

There are scenes in the battlefield, scenes in the marketplace, scenes in the Roman Senate and the Imperial household, chariots hurtling at top speed, and a headless horseman. The only thing that's missing is the Valley of the Leopards from SCTV's screamingly funny parody of Ben-Hur (where John Candy played Judah Ben-Hur as Curly Howard would've played him). What Samuel Bronston didn't have -- but would have used had he had it -- was modern theatrical stereo, of which there is plenty in Gladiator. Every clang, hack, hew, and roar (both human and animal) has been rendered in ear-splitting aural splendor. Be prepared for media hucksters to pipe forth, "It Rocks!!!" based on the soundtrack alone.

Ridley Scott still knows how to use faces to tell a story (the one part everybody seems to remember from White Squall is the moment when Jeff Bridges and Caroline Goodall bade farewell to each other from opposite sides of a window on a submerged boat), and there is plenty of proof of that to be found, here. The faces of the soldiers and their leaders tell of their forays and conquests through the way they look battered, weathered and beaten. Tommy Flanagan, as a military valet, his handsome face with almond eyes circumnavigated by a long, curving scar. Richard Harris, looking almost painfully winnowed, sunken-cheeked and bony, yet still with a glimmer of shining royalty detectable in his being. Oliver Reed, ruddy-complected and hirsute, yet still every inch of the commanding, self-professed "entertainer." David Hemmings, a sort of emcee for the coliseum games, his eyebrows groomed so that they fly up at the ends, like wings. Spencer Treat Clark, with a beatific face yet otherwise looking and sounding every inch of the manor born. (He speaks with the hero before one of the games, looks him over, and says with authoritative certainty, "I will cheer for you.") The radiance that comes from Djimon Hounsou when he and Russell Crowe's characters speak about home and family (and which makes you start wishing that Hounsou's character will make it all the way to the end of the story). Connie Nielsen, the beautiful imperial sister, bound up with increasing mournfulness. And Joaquin Phoenix, who, with his straight, dark, Mephistophelean eyebrows, dark heavy-lidded eyes, and almost milky-white skin over sharply-defined aquiline features, make him a born actor to portray a disreputable emperor of Rome.

There is a story in Gladiator -- after all, they had to fill all that time with something -- and it begins with Roman army general Maximus (Russell Crowe) riding on horseback past the men whom he will soon order into battle. He obviously knows that form is as much of an inspiration for men to fight, and win, than any prearranged strategy could be. But after two years of fighting, Maximus has grown tired and wants to go home to his wife and son on a plot of land located "just above Tingis" (at the Strait of Gibraltar, in southern Spain). Instead he finds himself smack-dab in the middle of Roman-style imperial intrigues (Maximus has never even seen the city of Rome itself), between the current emperor Marcus Aurelius (played by Harris), who sees in Maximus the chance to restore both moral and republican order to the seat of power, and Commodus (Phoenix), who wants to become Emperor and be loved by the people, because love is something his father never gave him. (Which is why Aurelius wants Maximus to succeed him.) Since this was during a time when the power of authority was determined through craft, scheming, poison and the knife, Commodus attempts to get rid of Maximus using the tried-and-true methods of the time. Instead, through a series of events, Maximus ends up, ferried through the hands of nomadic slave traders, fighting as a gladiator under the care and ownership of Proximus (Reed), a gladiator himself at one time who subsequently won his freedom. Maximus, with his military ingenuity, plays well and stays alive, while at the same time, Commodus, in order to keep the people happy and keep their minds off of things such as plague raging through parts of the city, decides to hold a series of continuous games in the Colosseum. Maximus finally gets to see Rome, and the chance to confront his sworn enemy.

Ancient Rome still looks digitized -- it lacks a certain amount of dimension and depth-of-field. Russell Crowe, speaking in a low, almost basso profondo voice -- either because of his character or to try and disguise his Australian accent -- holds both the camera and the center of the movie, and imbues his character with moral weight. During the moments when, for instance, he refuses to deliver the coup-de-grace to a fallen opponent, or turns away, saying nothing, from a gross taunt delivered to his face, you can see why it would inspire approbation from the characters on the screen. Crowe may be playing a character who is athletic and muscular almost to the point of being thuggish, but his Maximus is a thinking man, one who weighs his options and outcomes skillfully, and Crowe also gives him moments of both great emotion (including one that will probably be talked about for months to come) and a certain charm, even wit.

Joaquim Phoenix plays Commodus as, basically, the man who controls the entire world and cannot find love. He has an empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Caspian Sea, but his father doesn't like him, his sister Lucilla doesn't like him, but his nephew Lucius sort-of likes him, and he does not seem the type to send a messenger to the local escort service to bring forth some companionship. The love of the people should be enough! It's an abstract love that he's after, and the irony does not seem to have escaped Phoenix, who avoids playing Commodus as an effete or a shrieking madman. (Besides, Jay Robinson was untoppable in that department in both The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators.) When he implores, in so many words, for Lucilla to fill that vacant role in his life, or when he plays on Lucius' affection for him in order to manipulate others, Phoenix accomplishes some very creepy moments without resorting to clichés.

A movie of this scale needs something to keep it going, and the elaborate game scenes -- involving sword, chain, armor, helmet, and wild beasts (somebody must've seen De Mille's delirious Sign of the Cross, which has forty-five minutes of the stuff at the end) -- should do the trick. The camera, though, is brought very close to the action, and the fighting is put together in a shudderings, slingshot manner that makes it both hard to follow what's going on, and to figure out who's hacking and hewing at whom. It's the same digitalized editing trick Scott employed in G.I. Jane, and which caused some people to ask me if there was something wrong with either the movie or the way it was being shown, because it bugged the heck out of them. If you didn't like the battle sequences in G.I. Jane, you'll have trouble with the arena scenes in Gladiator.

The victories and defeats, in and out of the arena, seem to spring out of nowhere, while the exposition scenes take on a heaviness to them, becoming very serious, very solemn, so that the picture begins to sink into a state of gravis without substance. We could just as well be watching actors declaiming at each other in a Roman epic of forty years before. (Just like in the Firesign Theatre parody of "peplum" movies: "Wha... What happened to your nose?" "I just got back from Rome!")

But, I am very happy to report that Oliver Reed's final screen performance, as Proximus, is an entirely splendid one. The speech he delivers to his new batch of novice warriors who are going to become gladiators, whether they like it or not, is a humdinger, and it's the one thing that had me laughing-out-loud and clapping during this two-hour-and-thirty-something minute film.

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