The Good: Good DVD bonus features, Moments of style
The Bad: Unlikable characters, Mediocre acting, Soundtrack is overbearing at times
The Basics: A disappointing Best Picture winner, Gladiator is violence and style with very stiff substance.
I have, to be honest, been dreading this review for quite some time. Back when I first started writing reviews, I wrote a review of Gladiator and it was pretty terrible. A few years ago, I was cleaning out my reviews that I didn’t think were worth updating and I deleted my poorly written take on the epic film I loathed. But when I began my Best Picture Project (click here to visit that!) I came to realize that part of viewing and reviewing every film that has won the Best Picture Oscar meant I would have to go back and rewatch Gladiator as I did not remember it well enough to simply review it. Sadly, this finally happened for me last night and I realized something important. Sometimes, I get a review right the first time and Gladiator IS the overrated film I thought it was the first time around. And yes, I’m sour that it won Best Picture and that I had to suffer through it again. I suppose I’m also sour that it has given rise to Russell Crowe, whom I find to be a mediocre – at best – actor.
Gladiator is a film I also have problems with on a sociological level and it follows a trend that I noted in my review of Apocalypto. The basic concept is as we (audiences now in the 21rst Century) watch films illustrating the decline of other great civilizations as a form of entertainment, we are simply reliving history. Rome, arguably, declined in part because of its decadence and the way it kept the masses enthralled with bread and circuses (which is illustrated well in Gladiator). By watching Gladiator with its extreme gore and violence, as a form of entertainment, we are simply replacing the real gladiatorial contests with cinematic ones. The net effect is the same. So long as we have enough cash for a movie or c.d. every once in a while the Powers That Be keep us docile and pliable. For me, though, Gladiator is nowhere near entertaining enough to achieve those goals.
A general in the Roman army, Maximus helps lead Rome to victory in Germania in the early A.D. centuries. Having won for Emperor and Empire, Maximus looks forward to returning home to his farm and having a chance at a normal, non-combative life. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius prepares to give Maximus his freedom from the Army, but is killed by his ambitious son, Commodus. Commodus has Maximus’s family killed and Maximus is captured by Roman slavers after finding his home destroyed. Bought by Proximo, Maximus soon finds himself compelled to fight in Rome’s gladiatorial contests and despite his desire to not fight and to join his family in death, he begins to fight in earnest.
Entering the ring, Maximus returns to the mindset of a general and he organizes the thralls to survive a historic recreation of a battle which Rome won (with the gladiators playing the losing side). Thwarting the stronger and better-armored Roman gladiators, Maximus (known in the ring as The Spaniard) gains instant popularity. However, when his old adversary Commodus realizes who he is, the political machinations surrounding Maximus, the fate of the Senate and the whole future of the Republic come into question with the gladiator as the linchpin of many people’s plans for supremacy.
Throughout Gladiator, there are alternating scenes of extreme violence and boring, creepiness. As Maximus moodily rises to popularity within the arena, outside the politicians squabble and while this breaks up the monotony of excessive gore quite nicely, it is hardly engaging. This is probably because most of the non-violent scenes feature Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus. Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I’ve pretty much had my fill of creepy, incestuous crazy despots and I don’t tend to enjoy watching them in movies. Add to that, Phoenix’s Commodus is so monolithically bad that there is little worth watching from him. Phoenix plays the role with a steely gaze that is penetrating, but outside the lines and obvious way Commodus looks at his sister, there is nothing in the performance that sells the villainy of the character. Instead, Phoenix telegraphs his performance by being stiff and awkwardly emotional; only those who have never seen a film with a villain seizing power will be surprised when Commodus kills his father.
But Phoenix is not the only actor whose performance is telegraphed. The surprise of a lighter moment where one of Maximus’s gladiator friends plays a practical joke with some stew is ruined in part because the performer hams it up a bit too much. As well, the female lead, Connie Nielsen, is particularly stiff as Lucilla. Even though she plays a strong female character in a very uncomfortable situation, she is stiff and it is hard to empathize with her, despite the horror of her particular struggle. It lessens her character when one considers she never makes a stab for the throne herself, instead relying on the menfolk to work the machinations around her. Nielsen, though, seems to go along with her character’s survival instinct without infusing anything special into it. As a result, her scenes have a similar passionless quality as virtually every moment Russell Crowe stabs at an opponent.
I recall the first time I saw Gladiator, I was particularly offended (in my sensibilities) by the CG tiger, which was fairly sloppy as it was lit from all angles (as opposed to from above where the sun is shining down on it). While I noticed this again on this viewing, I did not find it quite as annoying or distracting as I once did. Still, it is worth noting that the special effects in this film are hardly flawless. In fact, at points, the soundtrack even becomes overbearing and that, too, is problematic.
But the real problem with Gladiator is in the principle character. Maximus is only marginally interesting and his failure to simply give up and die is drawn out with little real explanation or sense that the struggle is going somewhere. Instead, Maximus persists and the viewer watches and his fate is hardly one the audience becomes emotionally invested in. This is probably because he is a pawn at best and Maximus never truly rises to his own occasion, so his story is merely a drawn-out slaughter that becomes tiresome and uncomfortably gory.
Beyond that, the gripe with Russell Crowe holds as well. Maximus is not much of a talking role and Crowe has the appropriately brutish attitude to make the fight scenes work. What he doesn’t have is the on-screen charisma to make it believable that all of the Roman politicians, most notably Derek Jacobi’s Gracchus, would invest so heavily in him. Instead, he plays a brute and he does it with less charisma than others who have taken on similar roles in recent years. He slashes, he ducks, he looks determined, but when given lines, he delivers them quietly with a monotony that is dull and holds up poorly over multiple viewings.
On DVD, Gladiator is packed with bonus features. In addition to nine deleted scenes and a montage which do nothing to improve the overall film, there are featurettes that are fairly thorough. In addition to production journals and the film’s theatrical trailer, Gladiator fans get some decent still images, but it’s still not enough to redeem the source material.
Ultimately, Gladiator is a violent movie that puts the viewer in the same place as the Roman citizens, getting numbed by watching a man slash his way through people for enjoyment while others make the real decisions. Not the best film of that year or, truly, any since.
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© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.