Jan. 4, 2001
For me, the key adjective describing this film is insipid, meaning both dull and uninteresting. The story is nothing more than a mish-mosh of elements from Spartacus and Ben Hur, without any of the characterization or motivation that made those other films so good.
Although working with the same basic revenge motive as Ben Hur, Gladiator has removed the logic and irony for the ease and convenience of the modern viewer. The Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), has decided to not appoint his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), as his successor, but has instead chosen the mighty general Maximus (Russell Crowe), whom he loves like a son. Sadly for Maximus, the Emperor hasnt told anyone else these plans but him, and when the Emperor does inform Commodus of the news -- entirely alone -- Commodus proceeds to hug Marcus Aurelius to death, then assumes the position of Emperor (there must be someone out there other than myself who also found this scene completely absurd?). When Maximus finds out what happened hes so peeved that in his snooty pique he wont salute the new Caesar, and thus we are theoretically motivated for the next two hours as Maximus goes through hell and back before finally and improbably getting the chance to kill Commodus in the coliseum.
Well, Ben Hur also goes through hell awaiting his chance to kill Messala, but A). He has far more interesting adventures along the way, like being a galley slave and saving the life of a Roman general, as well as becoming a great charioteer in Rome, but more importantly, B). He has a history with Messala who was his best friend in his youth, and C). Ben Hur didnt really do anything, hes taking the rap for his sister who knocked the tile off the roof injuring the new Roman governor. Theres a certain amount of irony here. Beyond any of that, revenge isnt the point of Ben Hur, its Ben Hurs spiritual redemption, with the help of Jesus Christ performing a miracle to save his mother and sister from leprosy.
And, of course, all the gladiator stuff comes straight out of Spartacus, where its all far better utilized.
Ridley Scott has this amazing ability to shoot every action sequence so confusingly that I never knew what the hell was going on. There are many cuts, slashing sword sound effects, then gushy, bloody sound and visual effects, and suddenly other gladiators are now dead, bleeding and missing limbs, but I dont know exactly what happened. Worse still, I never care.
As an aside, all the gladiator training sequences in Spartacus were directed by Anthony Mann -- before getting fired by star/executive producer, Kirk Douglas, who subsequently hired the young Stanley Kubrick, whom he had just worked with on Paths of Glory. I just love the way these training scenes are shot, scored and edited. Not to mention, theres the beautiful love story intertwined in it. There is nothing in Gladiator that comes anywhere close in the department of plain old good filmmaking and storytelling.
And with all the blood and guts in Gladiator, nothing is nearly as powerful as Spartacus drowning the head of the gladiator school (the great Charles McGraw) in a pot of soup. It was nice, however, seeing Oliver Reed in his last performance, looking old and mere minutes from death, but sadly having no real relationship to Maximus, so he is utterly wasted. His character is neither as funny as Peter Ustinovs gladiator school-owner (I tingle!), nor as outlandish at Hugh Griffiths Arab horse trader (both Oscar-winners, by the way, so perhaps Oliver Reed has a posthumous chance).
OK, yes, I am very familiar with Spartacus and Ben Hur, but youd figure anyone that was going to make a big gladiator, sword & sandal epic, would be familiar with them, too. For instance,
Which brings us to the storys theme. What is Gladiator trying to say? Maximus isnt leading a slave revolt or standing up for the inalienable rights of man or finding redemption from Jesus Christ. Maximus feels gypped, then acts foolishly. However, since the crowd is behind him, and they cheer so loudly for him, the Emperor himself comes down into the arena, and is promptly slain by the gladiator. Then the people cheer even more. The end. So is the point then, if people cheer, its good? Does that sound like the rationale for a big dumb movie or what?
Fine, call me a stick-in-the-mud. I just bought a brand new DVD player and Gladiator was the first film Ive watched that I hadnt already seen. When the film began I was awake and eager and cranked up and ready to see a good movie. For the next 2 hours and 35 minutes the film tried relentlessly to put me to sleep. Given the choice between sitting through Gladiator again (at 154 minutes), or sitting through all of Spartacus again (at 184 minutes), then all of Ben Hur again (at 212 minutes), Id choose the latter. You could throw in the silent version of Ben Hur, too (thats another 141 minutes), and for me it would still be a lot easier.
And is it just me or does Russell Crowes voice seem to not be coming out of his body? To me his voice always sounds like its coming out of the wrong surround speaker, somewhere behind me. Im beginning to suspect that Russell Crowe may in fact be nothing more than a digital effect with the wrong voice. Given the artistically lame times we are presently stuck in, it makes perfect sense that a dull actor like Russell Crowe should be voted Entertainer of the Year by People Magazine.
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