Dir. Ridley Scott; Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen
[2 out of 4 stars]
Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) frames two bland characters against each other in a plot as old and as cliché as Jacob and Esau. On one side, we have Maximus (Russell Crowe), a general who represents the Roman Republican virtues of duty to family and country, a love of nature, and a stoic tolerance for pain; the clear hero of the film. On the other side, we have Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix),a a lazy, self-absorbed prince, who attempts to gain power by pushing the politicians out of the way. Gladiator is about their shared destiny, a story of betrayal, redemption, and, above all else, close-ups of Roman soldiers scowling.
The film begins with a battle against a barbarian horde in which Maximus demonstrates his valor and is praised by the emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Commodus, jealous of his father’s love for Maximus, confronts his father and, in a scene that surprises no one, murders his father and turns on Maximus. When Maximus refuses to help Commodus gain power by destroying the senate, Commodus has him sent to be killed along with his family. Maximus escapes and vows to avenge his family. Having lost everything, he becomes a gladiator, eventually fighting his way to the Colosseum where he confronts Commodus in the arena.
The film’s biggest fault is its unoriginality. If you’ve seen any blockbuster action film, you’ve already seen Gladiator. Ridley Scott rests on hyper-masculine tropes in order to please his target audience, and the screenplay reads like a cheap adventure novel: a stoic hero devoid of weakness or emotions falls in love with a corrupt but beautiful woman, while the weak but creepy bad guy undergoes a Freudian struggle with his father, and the whole film ends with the classic big fight. We know exactly what is going to happen every step of the way, and like Roger Ebert says, it’s basically Rocky “on downers”. Of course, these stories are often fun, but Gladiator lacks that element as well. Unnecessary gore, blaring noises, and truly awful special effects (the Colosseum, for instance, looks like a cheap toy), make most of the action unwatchable.
Gladiator rests on other films to create emotional draw. The primary reason the film lacks any real emotion is because we never meet the family Maximus is avenging long enough to generate any sympathy. Crowe’s acting is decent, (certainly better than many of the other actors, yet hardly comparable to his work in A Beautiful Mind (2001) or other films), but he does not convince us to care about his struggle. We know, from other action films we have seen, that the hero feels deeply for his family, so we transfer that emotion to this film. Gladiator thus avoids any real character development, allowing for weak performances from most of its actors.
In a couple scenes, there is almost hope that the film will redeem itself. For a brief moment in an early scene between Marcus Aurelius and Maximus, we hope that the film will go beyond the hyper-masculinity contest and address the issues of war: “Tell me again Maximus, why are we here?” to which Maximus replies, “For the glory of the Empire, sire.” But the screenplay lets us down again. Many lines are pure cliché, like when Commodus questions Maximus’s loyalty: “Maximus, we must save Rome from the politicians. Can I count on you when the time comes?” The moral ends up being simple: tyranny isn’t just, so it is up to the average, incorruptible, unbeatable general-turned-gladiator to restore power to the right hands: the politicians.
I watched Gladiator because of its high rating on IMDb (8.5 stars and rated the 46th best film of all time), and because it won several Oscars. This, I assume, is because the film caters to its audiences, and because its viewers feel like it is “better than the other action movies out there” — it still holds out against films like 300 (2006) or Centurion (2010), but that isn’t saying much. Scott’s film may have won the 2001 Academy Award for Best Picture, but it still leaves a lot to be desired in its plot, acting, and cinematography, especially when compared to the magical Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Perhaps the best part of Gladiator is in its brief moment of self-awareness. After defeating a horde of gladiators, Maximus yells to the crowd: “Are you entertained?” One hopes that this is Ridley Scott’s commentary on the role of entertainment in film, but Gladiator then goes on to remove anything more than surface-level symbolism from its message. By the end of the film, I wasn’t even entertained.