In the opening shot of Gladiator, a rugged, combat-scarred hand reaches out and gently touches long stalks of grass, which are blowing silently in the wind. It's a hauntingly serene image, ghostly and tranquil, the kind of shot a director like Terrence Malick would undoubtedly be enraptured with. And those few seconds are about as long as it takes for Ridley Scott's adrenaline-charged combat epic to hit overdrive, rapidly shifting to Germania, where the seemingly unstoppable Roman army (a second century equivalent to the Yankees) is waiting to do bloody battle with the rebellious locals. All eyes are trained upon the formidable General Maximus (Russell Crowe), a man of impressive stature and rock-hard determination, who commands his troops to give 'em hell. And by God they do. The scene erupts into a frenzied melee of flaming arrows and rabid battle cries, escalating into a gleeful orgy of flying sword blades, blood, and body parts.
The hyper-kinetic fervor of the struggle is impressive enough, but the sheer logistics of the scene are what is truly amazing. As the camera pans across the battle, a sea of extras, stretching farther than the eye can see, brings the army to life on a breath-taking scale. Which makes very clear what the veteran visionary Scott wants his Gladiator to be a bona fide throwback to old-fashioned Hollywood epics like Spartacus and Ben-Hur, which prided themselves on creating the biggest spectacle possible. Sure, those films had stories (Spartacus had a great one, in fact), but even more important was the way in which they took full advantage of cinematic technology in order to make the saga seem literally larger-than-life.
In terms of plot, Gladiator has some fairly epic ambitions of its own. Maximus is adored by the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), who is nearing death and tortured by uncertainties over his place in history. Therefore, he decides to bypass his power-hungry son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), as emperor and invest all his authority in Maximus, who can then re-empower the senate and help Rome return to its glory days as a republic. Maximus is not particularly enthusiastic he'd much rather occupy his time with a less stressful task, like tending crops, but he reluctantly agrees. Next thing he knows, Commodus has seized the throne and he's been condemned to die. Maximus is able to escape, but he winds up a slave in a rag-tag gladiator boot camp where the greatest thrill (aside from survival) is the chance to compete in the Coliseum. And that is exactly where Maximus, with thoughts of revenge dancing in his mind, is headed after he proves his worth on what essentially amounts to the minor league gladiator circuit.
From that little summary, you can probably surmise that there are about a good six original minutes to be carved out of Gladiator's sprawling two and a half-hour frame. A beacon of innovation and creativity the film is not. And yet, much like its revered progenitors, Gladiator works on such an impressive scale that it is able to overcome its dearth of originality. Ridley Scott has always enjoyed a somewhat undeserved reputation as a visual virtuoso (White Squall? GI Jane?), but this is one project in which his supposed visual prowess is on display full-force. Taking a page from the James Cameron playbook, Scott meticulously recreates the world of ancient Rome, capturing the most minute details from the bustling streets to the massive Coliseum. And the numerous gladiator battles are quite spectacular, capturing the split-second barbarity through a combination of the realist "skip-frame" technique from Saving Private Ryan and the furious, in-your-face editing style Oliver Stone employed in Any Given Sunday.
But the most crucial factor of Gladiator might just be Russell Crowe, an actor whose praises I've been singing for years. LA Confidential and The Insider (which he should of won Best Actor for) solidified his credibility as an actor, but Gladiator is the film that will make Crowe a star. While the role of Maximus lacks the deep inner-conflict and shades of gray that marked the roles of Bud White and Jeffrey Wigand, Crowe is given the opportunity here to display a white-hot intensity and impressive physicalitynever, not even for a nanosecond, do we fail to believe that he is every inch a Roman warrior. I've almost no doubt that Crowe, ever a chameleon, is capable of playing any role in Gladiator he is the ultimate action hero, dispensing with cheap one-liners in favor of good, old-fashioned brute force.
And yet, as intense an action film as it may be, Gladiator fails as a full-fledged epic. Scott has never been particularly adept at the human aspect of his stories (it's no coincidence that Blade Runner is his best film) and here the human relationships are often severely lacking, cold even. The friendship between Maximus and a fellow gladiator (played by Amistad's Djimon Hounsou) has no emotional resonance, nor does his bland romance (if you want to call it that) with the emperor's sister (Connie Nielsen). And as wonderful as Crowe is, the detached nature of his character (mostly the fault of the script) hinders his ability to turn Maximus into a truly mythic hero. The great Hollywood epics all had a sense of sweeping emotional grandeur (when the rebels all yell "Spartacus!" it's a cheesy yet uplifting scene) which is noticeably absent from Scott's film, which is more of a relentless, almost mechanical, exercise in blood sports. The end result is a movie that's exciting yet empty, visually gorgeous yet emotionally barren. As big-budget action films go, Gladiator more than delivers the goods, but a healthy dose of heart may have helped the film produce more than just a fleeting adrenaline rush.
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