[Written for Film.com]
Gladiator, a blockbuster-budgeted behemoth about ancient Rome, begins with a lyrical closeup of a man’s hand rippling through the wheat in a sun-dappled field. Yes, this has the look of director Ridley Scott, in that exciting/maddening way of his: it’s an image that could come from a tone poem, or from a TV commercial. Scott has always had both sides to his directorial personality, which I think is why I have a hard time referring to Alien and Blade Runner as classics (having never gotten over the thud of disappointment I felt on their opening days). In fact, for a highly regarded filmmaker, Scott has an awful lot to answer for, including G.I. Jane, 1492, and that horned fantasy Legend.
Still, there’s something there. Hell, White Squall has some utterly enthralling sequences: you want a storm at sea, Ridley’s your man. He sees the sky, and the earth, and the trees, in a keen-eyed way all his own. All of which means that Gladiator is in the right hands, for this is a movie about size and scale, and about the price you pay for being an entertainer. Before each battle, the Roman general Maximus, the film’s hero (with a name like Maximus, you thought maybe he was the sidekick?), silently rubs his hands together with a bit of the soil he stands on. Ridley Scott knows all about those textures.
The story, concocted by a team of screenwriters including the literate William Nicholson, is pure potboiler. The great hero Maximus (Russell Crowe) is destroyed by a young, degenerate emperor called Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who slaughters the general’s wife and child. Maximus escapes the blade but is enslaved, made a gladiator, and eventually returns to fight in the Roman Colosseum, where he will of course exact revenge on Commodus.
The best parts of the script are the wry comments on the nature of “entertainment” and politics, and the way public opinion can be manipulated in either arena. This is a nice sardonic touch, although with millions of dollars on the line, Scott is busy rattling his own sword. The opening battle scene in Germania is awesome, with snow drifting over the carnage, but the real spectacle is saved for Rome, where some stunning digital effects work (and old-fashioned carpentry) has created the ancient city in proper scale. Scenes of Emperor Commodus climbing a stairway before thousands of people, or the gladiators rising from the bowels of the Colosseum to glimpse its arena for the first time — these are moments that make you remember why you liked going to movies. Scott gets away with it until the final 40 minutes or so, when too much talk and too few complexities grind the movie down.
Russell Crowe confirms his status as the next Mel Gibson, a feeling reinforced by the suspicion that Gladiator is closer to Braveheart than Spartacus. The movie gives a final plum to Oliver Reed, who died during production in Malta, and the old lion comes through with his best performance in years. He plays a former gladiator, now trainer/owner of fighting men; like Hugh Griffith in a similar role in Ben-Hur, he gets the world-weary comic material. From his first moments in a slave market, accusing a trader of damaged goods (“You sold me queer giraffes”), Reed is a robust delight. The other actors do their expected business — Richard Harris, Djimon Hounsou, Derek Jacobi — although Connie Nielsen, as in Mission to Mars, is a welcome source of calm as the obligatory female lead. She’s the sister of the emperor, still carrying an old torch for Maximus, natch.
Commodus, in the best tradition of sicko Roman emperors, carries his torch for his sister. The casting of Joaquin Phoenix in the role is a Ridley Scott coup; it upends expectations, yet Phoenix fits the part. With a sniveling expression, heavy brow, and ghastly pallor, Phoenix carries himself like some accident of inbreeding and privilege, but he doesn’t camp up the role.
None of this is quite enough to make the movie about anything. Ah, but vox populi, you say; the people will choose their entertainment, and Gladiator delivers the goods. True enough. Allow a critic to point out, however, that Gladiator derides “entertainment” while hustling like crazy to provide two and a half hours’ worth of same. The heroism and the tigers and the epic grandeur all leave behind the flavor of cynicism.