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.
The Riefenstahl quotation seems to be there as a thematic cue, but it‘s hard not to feel that all this borrowing is an indication that the director is distracted, perhaps even bored with the material. He’s uninterested in most of the intimate exchanges, but rouses himself for the fight sequences — the first coliseum brawl is stunning — and for his key performers. He unleashes the late Oliver Reed, who, ridiculous and hugely entertaining as a gladiator wrangler, fills in the hollows of his character with the ease of a professional who‘s swaggered through bad movies and good. With his meaty anatomy and rough-trade appeal, Crowe makes a persuasive thug — even when he’s just walking he seems to be pounding the ground with rage. His isn‘t a graceful body, or a particularly subtle performance, but Crowe isn’t an actor who likes to betray his delicacy — he‘s strongest, or at least most comfortable, playing angry. Best of all is Joaquin Phoenix, an interesting actor who dazzles as Commodus. Whether he’s sizing up his sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), or staring down an enemy senator, the young actor seems to be channeling Charles Laughton at his most poignantly louche. His modest jowls don‘t tremble as expressively as Laughton’s did, and his lips don‘t glisten with as much rapacious promise, but there’s something in the way he makes Commodus frightening and vulnerable at once that recalls how Laughton always managed to turn his villains into martyrs of their own cruelty.
Gladiator isn‘t an impersonal exercise — it’s filled with Scott‘s visual flourishes and obsessions, but what’s missing is his characteristic sense of urgency. The director‘s films are invariably pitched between extraordinary spectacle and ramrod storytelling (many of his films feature characters on the run, existentially or physically). But epics are hard to move — they’re ponderous by their very nature. The filmmaking in Gladiator is state of the art, and there are moments when it‘s better than that, moments of breathtaking, brutal lyricism. The story that Scott signed on to, however, is predictable, formulaic, and there are too many instances when, as with misadventures such as Legend, he seems thwarted instead of enlivened by the constraints of genre. By the time the Roman crowd, fattened on bread and distracted by carnage, lowers its collective thumb, it’s clear that this bloody, doleful epic isn‘t about swords, sandals or even slavery, but the tyranny of genre filmmaking itself. It’s no wonder we can‘t wait for Maximus to get back in the ring — neither can Scott.