By Joshua Rothkopf
Directed by Ridley Scott
is the kind of warm-weather bruiser you can have fun with-even while it's
having its terrible way with you. It's a very proud movie: Only 20 minutes
pass and we've already been treated to a ferocious dog with orange eyes,
a severed head flung in the mud, and the efficient devastation of a sizable
forest in Germania. Those Roman legionnaires sure knew how to catapult
a firebomb at their tribal enemies; so total is this opening rout that
its only purpose is to wow us with crude imperial will. Says one commanding
officer with the arrogance that comes with the scorched territory: "People
should know when they're conquered."
by your man. Credit: Jaap Buitendjik/Dreamworks
In this picture, audiences are meant to be conquered too, not just thrilled
but pummeled by its size, its cost, its thousands of extras-the mind reels
at the catering alone. Gladiator is more than just a revival of
the "sword-and-sandal" period epic, itself as dusty as a Roman coin; it's
a return to the studio-driven colossus that throws a fortune at silliness
just because it can. This excess used to have an ostensible justification
in the threat of television, then in its infancy. Competitive innovations
like the horizon-stretching Cinemascope made their debuts with the pomp
and glory of The Robe; Land of the Pharaohs and Ben Hur chased ponderously
after steadily dwindling receipts lost to the tube.
But the movie industry has long since given up the fight, edging ever
closer to shortened attention spans and the emotional tidiness of Friends.
Hollywood still knows how to spend money, of course. Gladiator
assures us of this and tries to swap that for genuine engagement, not
wholly in vain. But the grandeur rushes by impatiently; all too often
the drama feels strictly small screen, like a video game. The script registers
like a time-honored recipe that has been undercooked: mix a dozen chariots
with several gallons of fake blood, add the angst of a slave or two, a
pinch of decadence-yet the dough doesn't rise. How can you have circuses
without any bread?
Ridley Scott, must have seemed a good choice on paper, a virtual guarantee
of luster. Most famously, he turned artificiality and craft into an utterly
persuasive, rain-drenched doomscape with Blade Runner, a sci-fi benchmark
that continues to impress after 20 years of technological advances. Scott
can even impart the air with tactility, fogging his interiors with motes
of dust or, as in Gladiator, slowly falling snowflakes. "Rome is the light,"
we hear early on; Scott takes this literally, bathing the film in creamy
hues of gold falling into darkest shadow under icy skies. The film never
fails to look absolutely delicious.
More problematic is his tendency to turn people into objects as well,
either as artificial replicants (Blade Runner), warm homes for
parasitic monsters (Alien), or icons in a post-feminist Mustang
commercial (Thelma & Louise). As in the arena, only the strongest
survive this suffocating prettiness, and Russell Crowe just makes the
cut as Maximus, our titular hero, despite a poorly developed role. Crowe
deserves better: He pulled off a tour-de-force in last year's The Insider
as the conflicted corporate whistleblower. Try to imagine that part with
none of its outspokenness and all of the glowering and you'll come to
a fair approximation of this film's Maximus-a general of few words who,
through bad luck and the jealousy of the emperor's son, comes to be sold
as a slave. Now a gladiator, he must fight his way to fame and a trip
to the Colosseum for his vengeance.
That's basically it for the plot, which all but cries out in its thematic
impoverishment. It underutilizes Crowe, a waste, and overtaxes Scott,
who is required to propel the brunt of the momentum through showdowns
of kinetic action-never his strong point. His precision falls apart in
one choppy battle sequence after the next, each a blurred mess of microsecond
edits and shutter-speed twiddling. For all his command, he can't seem
to sustain a simple narrative of blows, sidestepping the promise of catharsis
with an impressionist's fickleness that infuriates. (Scott did start off
as an art school student.) The bag of tricks is never depleted: slow-motion
impalements, computer-generated dismemberment, handheld nausea. I was
praying for a tiger attack on the cameraman just so he might retreat by
a few yards to establish some perspective; instead we have to wait for
the dust to settle to make out the casualties.
Crowds at my two screenings didn't seem to find these incoherent death
matches insulting, even though they cater mainly to our bloodlust. Roars
of the attending mob rock the house-and not just from Gladiator's
deafening soundtrack. But the picture's screenwriters, speaking through
rational senators, would also have us reprove the vulgarity of young emperor
Commodus' 150 days of games: "He'll bring them death and they will love
him for it." Gloats Commodus: "I will give the people the greatest vision
of their lives," perhaps reading from Scott's contract with Dreamworks.
(Joaquin Phoenix has a great time with the lip-quivering villainy.)
Everyone seems in on the gag though, turning the overall hypocrisy into
something winking and watchable. "Win the crowd and you will win your
freedom," intones Proximo (the late Oliver Reed), a former gladiator now
both the owner and coach of Maximus; the plummy line reads like an agent's
mantra. Clapping the brooding Maximus on the shoulder, he confesses, "I'm
Putting on a spectacle is nothing more and nothing less-and it's the only
truth in the film. Scott knows this and lets his images rule over fuzzy
intimations in the script of incest and a populist crusade against tyranny.
Where are these oppressed? They mass in the bleachers, victims presumably
of abusive ticket prices. Looking out, Maximus vents his disgust at their
base urges but (carefully) not ours; that would be no fun. Besides, Scott
has more visceral concerns: a convoy of guards behind glossy black shields
rising majestically from beneath the arena; Commodus' stainless white
armor; glints in the spattered sand. By the end, any political dimensions
have been shorn from the inevitable head-to-head-and maybe that's appropriate.
After all, these people still had Septimus Servus to look forward to.
In These Times ©
Vol. 24, No. 14