Image source. Copyright Universal Studios, 2000.
In ancient Rome, the satirist Juvenal seethed about the pervasive influence of “bread and circus.” 2,000 years later, Gladiator clearly shows that his words have a long way to go before they sleep. Indeed, 16 years after this movie raged its way to box office success and a Best Picture Oscar, the flaws behind Ridley Scott’s historical epic have only become more apparent. Strip away the action, the gore, and the spectacle, and you’re left with a trifling, unmemorable take on overused ideas of honor and pride. Not to mention a depiction of ancient Rome that’s terribly unfaithful to reality.
Gladiator begins, like every other action movie made in the last 50 years, in the heat of…action. We watch Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), a Roman general, lead his troops into a battle the movie declares the last step towards “the promise of peace throughout the empire.” After 15 minutes of blood and gore that serve as early Christmas for the testosterone-laden members of the audience, Maximus emerges in glorious victory. Everything seems to be going swimmingly for him. He’s the top general in all of Rome, fresh off a series of great military victories that have brought stability “for decades to come.” There are even whispers that he could become emperor. So many possibilities, so many open roads.
Which of course means there’s nowhere to go but down. Enter Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the scheming, angsty, incestuous son of Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), with a scowl that might as well be a “Hate me, I’m evil!” billboard with big, blinking lights. Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors, is old. Supposedly disapproving of the idea of Rome being run by just one man (as if he hasn’t be doing that for 20 years already), he decides to entrust Maximus with the responsibility of transitioning Rome back to a republic. (Latin students facepalm.) But it somehow never crosses Marcus’ mind that his son probably won’t be terribly pleased with this idea. And so, in a scene completely ripped off from another, far better Ridley Scott film, Blade Runner, Commodus gets away with choking his father to death.
After that, the film decides ripping off one film isn’t enough, and so goes and liberally borrows plot points from a bunch of others. Maximus is forced into slavery after his wife and son are executed – see Ben-Hur. He is trained to become a gladiator and ends up spearheading a rebellion against Commodus – see Spartacus. Unfortunately, Ridley Scott is no Wyler or Kubrick. Gladiator takes these plot points, follows them letter for letter, and then tries to package them as something completely new. But in reality, nothing about any aspect of this movie is distinctive enough to make this umpteenth incarnation of the same tried-and-true tale worth the effort. Perhaps because he feels guilty, Scott tries to cover this unsettling truth up with loads of fighting and action. Given the reception this movie received, his disguising act worked for a while. In the end, however, all the juicy fat in the world can’t conceal the brittle, bare-boned rot festering on the inside.
The acting doesn’t help either. Crowe is okay, but his on-screen gravitas here is minimal. He acts so quiet and gruff throughout the movie’s 2.5-hour running time that it almost feels as if he’s banking solely on brute physicality to carry the day. In a better movie, his introversion would be pensive stoicism. Here, it seems more like laziness. Phoenix’s performance is similarly rigid and uninspired, little more than a stereotypical rendition of his “emo teenager” part. Whenever he’s on screen, you find yourself secretly wishing this whiny, vain dunce of an emperor would just go away. And Connie Nielsen, the actress who plays Commodus’ sister and Maximus’ love interest, shows a glimmer of hope at the beginning; she acts mysterious, with undisclosed loyalties that leave everyone around her hanging. But once she makes it clear she’s for Maximus, she devolves into nothing more than a melodramatic fan-girl with a fancy Roman air.
Ben-Hur and Spartacus at least have the excuse of age when it comes to their fairly standard plotlines. But the fact that Gladiator still has such a cliché plotline, now that we’re in the 21st century and people can tell the trite from the thoughtful, almost makes this movie an insult. Granted, it feels good to watch near-invincible characters come back from the dead and make all the bad guys run away like babies. But Maximus’ journey is so banally feel-good that it stretches credibility. Seriously? A slave in the middle of North Africa, subject to all the brutal whims of the lifestyle, has what it takes to fight undefeated all the way to the Colosseum? Not one person has the skills to give this guy at least an even match? This implausibility even taints the ending: Commodus gives Maximus a life-threatening wound in the back, yet Maximus still kills him fairly easily, with absolutely no resistance from the scores of servants and officers of Commodus standing just 20 feet away. Yes, it’s nice to see the irritatingly immature Commodus die the death he had coming. But that makes us no less petty and superficial than the people who once crowded the Colosseum to see gladiators fight to the death.
Epic movies are always a bit melodramatic, but they usually have something to make up for it. Lawrence of Arabia has a great score, great cinematography, and an intriguing protagonist. Gone with the Wind has a majestic theme, emblematic acting and dialogue, and surprisingly strong production values. Even Ben-Hur, a fairly good example of a cliché “feel-good movie,” has several distinguishing aspects. In contrast, Gladiator, a mere shade of its predecessors, has a measly plotline, unmemorable acting, and a design that doesn’t dare break our preconceived, sugarcoated notions of what ancient Rome was like. When the movie ends and the song “Now We Are Free” booms over the credits, we’re certainly glad Russell Crowe and his crew of motley warriors are free. But now that we’re free of this movie, we really could care less.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris
Running Time: 155 minutes
Produced by: Douglas Wick, David Franzoni, Branko Lustig
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson