Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is a bipolar movie, a spectacle that’s against spectacles. It’s a sporadically absorbing film with a handful of classy performances, but it has a schoolmarm’s chiding temperament; despite being a mainstream action picture with big-budget special effects, it has the gall to moralize about the effects of escapism on an unthinking citizenry. Gladiator is a two-ring circus that fails as entertainment and stinks as a sermon.
The film opens in 180 A.D. as the Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) and his army are securing the martial victory that will solidify the Roman Empire. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) and his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) are on hand to congratulate Maximus, but the frail Marcus has a special gift for his star general: succession to his power. When Commodus hears that his own father is planning to pass over him, he succumbs to the weakest, most agonized side of himself by murdering Marcus, ordering the deaths of Maximus and his family, and taking the throne for himself. Maximus escapes the assassination attempt, but his self-appointed mission to avenge his wife and son’s deaths is postponed when he’s forced into slavery. His owner, an early-day fight promoter named Proximo (Oliver Reed, in his last screen role), molds him into a top-notch gladiator, and when the clan of fighters enter Rome to do battle in the Colosseum, Maximus is again close enough to Commodus to seek his vengeance.
Until this point, Gladiator is a simple revenge story, a Western in tunics. But once Maximus arrives in Rome, Scott and his screenwriters begin weaving cultural themes into their story that eat away at it like termites. We’re told that Commodus stages the gladiator bouts to keep his subjects docile, so that as Maximus overcomes the challenges that Commodus throws his way, the battles in the arena evolve into a war for public opinion. The commoners make Maximus into a symbolic celebrity – equal parts Jesus and Rocky Balboa – further firing Commodus’ already acute lust for acceptance. His wet-eyed insecurity even pushes him into making veiled passes at his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), a wasp whose adeptness at court intrigues is undercut by her feelings for Maximus. And always hovering in the background is the senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), who wishes to make Marcus’ hopes for a more republican Rome a reality.
We’ve seen this movie before, of course – in 1975 to be precise, when it was called Rollerball and James Caan played the sportsman Christ-figure. Gladiator is filled with blunt parallels to the trappings of modern-day fame and athletics: groupies envelope Maximus on his way to the bouts, the gladiators’ training sessions resemble infield practice, the dungeons look like locker rooms, and so on. It would be interesting to know where Scott draws the line between legitimate and debased entertainment (and on which side of it he might place something like his 1989 Black Rain). As it is, we have to accept Gladiator‘s ideas as its ruling-class characters interpret them for us because the movie never takes us amongst the commoners, where we might gauge their dissatisfaction with Commodus’ reign or see what effect the fights are having on them.
If Scott really wanted to explore how violence can serve as an opium for the masses, he should have included some of it in his movie. As if to inoculate himself against charges of hypocrisy, he’s aestheticized his action scenes to the point of muddiness. Using fast motion photography, whip-like camera movements, overexposed film stock, and rapid cutting, Scott only communicates the outlines of brutality, leaving things so smeared that half the time you can’t be sure what’s going on. What’s the point of bringing together so many resources to depict one of the most violent periods in history, and then not show it? (Gladiator also all but erases sex from ancient Rome, which may be its greatest special effect.)
Gladiator’s sword choreography lacks the dancing kind of athleticism that gives movies like this a reason to exist, and the big set-pieces are perfunctory, unfulfilling affairs. The movie’s one astonishing sequence occurs in its opening scene: amidst a swirling, ash-like snow, Maximus’ men flush the Germanian army from a forest by catapulting comets of fiery clay into the treetops above it. But Scott turns on his art-house tricks as soon as the two armies meet in hand-to-hand combat, and the movie establishes a pattern of making you wait for the next big sequence to see if that’s going to be the one that blows you out of your chair. When the charioteers who attack a footbound Maximus don’t do it, you think, "Well, maybe the tigers will." But when the tigers come pouncing out of their underground lairs, and they don’t do it either, you realize the movie is merely running on a well-traveled path to martyrdom.
Gladiator still might have succeeded had not so many of its details gone unrealized. Maximus’ sidekicks are such lazy creations that even their ends are cliched: the gentle giant dies a noble death while the soulful black lives on to carry forth the spirit that is Maximus – or something. The former champion whom Commodus pulls out of mothballs has no defining traits – he barely even has a face – so with Maximus’ victory over him a foregone conclusion, their battle is a weightless minuet. The film’s characters discuss the political situation as if things can only happen all one way or all the other, with no middle ground offered between the two extremes of Commodus and Maximus, between tyranny and freedom. Even the ballyhooed CGI-recreation of the Colosseum lacks flavor. Scott sends his camera gliding and soaring all over the set, yet somehow he manages to avoid conveying any of the wild animal electricity that must have filled the real place in its day. And with its seats filled by 33,000 computer-generated spectators, the phrase "cast of thousands" has never held less meaning.
It’s a miracle that Gladiator’s cast can work any magic amidst so much hokum, but they do. Richard Harris and Oliver Reed, who are usually undone by their own volatility, are both sunny and assured here; Reed appears particularly serene, and delivers a beautifully textured farewell as the wily desert beetle Proximo. Crowe understands that Maximus is an icon instead of a character, and he takes the path of least resistance in delivering his clumsy Dirty Harry lines ("At my signal, unleash hell!" and "My name is…‘Gladiator’!"). Trumping them all is Joaquin Phoenix, who’s left adolescence far behind and grown into a sturdy young man. Phoenix looks like a Caesar with his ringlets and square jaw-line, but his Commodus is a discomfiting one. Wheedling and lightweight at his core, his nearly comical agony only makes him more dangerous. Phoenix plays him as if Fredo Corleone had seized the reins of the Roman Empire.