By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
There’s a reason why there are so many crummy movies about imperial Rome -- the men wore skirts, the violence was grotesque and the populace steeped in the sort of debauchery that Code-bound Hollywood never dared show. Historically, prohibitions on recreational purgation and rape made Rome better suited to the likes of Roger Corman than to Stanley Kubrick or Anthony Mann, an otherwise muscular director whose lugubrious The Fall of the Roman Empire (and Fall and Fall . . . ) is merely one inspiration for director Ridley Scott‘s new film, Gladiator. Written by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson, the epic pivots on the exploits of an undefeated general named Maximus (Russell Crowe), who dutifully serves one Caesar, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), and incurs the enmity of another, Marcus Aurelius’ son, the dissolute Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Soon after the story opens, Maximus, a wealthy farmer on the verge of returning to the wife and son he has not seen for nearly three years, is petitioned by Caesar to save Rome from itself by returning it to republican rule. Commodus thwarts his father‘s plans with despotic flourish, and Maximus ends up going mano a mano with a rainbow coalition in a North African coliseum, then getting shipped off to Rome to distract the Coliseum masses.
It’s difficult to imagine a director who could give this sort of film, and this sort of story, both the necessary pop buoyancy and the digital realism that audiences have been trained to expect. The giddy, at times queasy pleasures of choreographed movie gunplay, of the sort that powers The Matrix or almost any John Woo film, may drive anti-gun crusaders nuts, but they are also irresistible. Watching bullets fall like rain, relishing the pop pop pop of exquisitely crafted weaponry cradled in the embrace of a beautiful star, is one of the pornographic rewards of modern moviegoing. Close the gap between a killer and his kill, though -- swap the handgun for a mace, the bullet hole for a pulpy gash -- and the violence is leached of both its ease and its facile pleasures. Which is what happens, unexpectedly and no doubt unintentionally, in Gladiator, a film in which the inherent frisson of movie violence is continually negated by its horror, by crushed heads and pulverized bodies delivered in unblinking close-up.
If that sounds like a downer, it is. Gladiator is filled with brilliant filmmaking and features outstanding performances, but it‘s neither profound enough nor pop enough to be great -- it’s mournful, serious, beautiful and, finally, pointless. Its primary reason for being seems to be the hunger of its releasing studio, DreamWorks, to replicate the box-office success of Saving Private Ryan. Indeed, Scott has admitted to basing his opening battle scene, an assault by the Roman legion on the Germanic tribes, on Spielberg‘s re-creation of the Normandy landing; he employs the same staccato editing and drains out the color. The irony is that Scott’s opening gambit -- with its swirling smoke, fire, flaming arrows, galloping horses, screaming hordes and a dog named Hell -- is greater, more insistently cinematic than Spielberg‘s. It’s the reason movies were invented, and when it‘s over, bodies litter the field like kindling.
By comparison, Spielberg had it easy with his war epic, a film, after all, about good guys leading the charge in the “good war.” There’s nothing good about the Roman Empire circa A.D. 180, and nothing good about Commodus, or the fallen general who has dedicated his life to death. What makes Maximus appealing, at least as far as the screenwriters would have us believe, is that he becomes a slave and, as a consequence, transforms from an official bully into an underdog. (Curiously, along with Amistad and The Prince of Egypt, Gladiator makes the third movie about slaves produced by DreamWorks in as many years. Can The Gulag Archipelago be far behind?) Maximus, however, makes an improbable sympathy case, even if he‘s meant to be stricken with the existential loneliness that haunts most of Ridley Scott’s heroes -- the duelists, Ripley, Deckard, Louise (though not Thelma) -- and that keeps each alone in an otherwise crowded universe.
When Maximus stares longingly at the effigies of his wife and child, it‘s supposed to bring forth another reality for him, a world outside the arena, in much the same way that the tinfoil unicorn does for Deckard in Blade Runner. But there’s only one reality for Maximus, that of gore and churning hate, and no matter how much Scott borrows from Blade Runner, he can‘t summon up the hurting human emotions that transformed that genre picture into a masterpiece. Scott is rummaging freely through the archives in Gladiator; in addition to Saving Private Ryan and Blade Runner, he also samples from Paths of Glory. His most startling allusion, though, is his introduction of Rome, which begins with a view of the city glimpsed through cloud cover, narrows in on a statue of an eagle and culminates with symmetrical columns of soldiers -- a precis of the major visual motifs in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city