Directed by Ridley Scott
Review by Matt Heffernan
Here it is, folks -- the first summer blockbuster of 2000. Ridley Scott, famed director of science fiction classics Alien and Blade Runner goes retro Kubrick-style. It's been a long time since Hollywood has made a gladiator movie, since films like Ben-Hur and Spartacus were both highly revered and incredibly expensive. It now takes two studios to make one; in this case, it's DreamWorks and Universal. They're banking on a big hit, but I'm not quite certain that they're going to get one.
In 180 A.D., the Roman army, under the command of General Maximus (Russell Crowe), is conquering Germania. The emperor, Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), is quite ill, and tells Maximus that he wants him to take over Rome when he dies, then eventually hand power over to the senate -- make Rome a republic again. The heir apparent, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), is not pleased to hear this, so he kills his father before he can announce the ascension of Maximus.
Commodus becomes Caesar, and orders Maximus to be killed. Maximus manages to escape from his executioners, but he returns home to find his family killed and his farm burned. He is then captured by Moors, who sell him to Proximo (Oliver Reed), a gladiator trainer. Nobody knows he is the great general, but he is a brilliant fighter, and he soon ends up performing for Caesar in the Colosseum. Will Maximus get his chance to defy an empire?
Of course he will, didn't you see the trailer? If you did, then you know pretty much everything that happens until the last half-hour. To get there, you have to sit through over two hours of pedestrian dialogue, interspersed with a few actions scenes. If you've seen Spartacus, then you have seen the same thing done much better. The problem is, you can't spend all that time talking, unless you have something interesting to say -- or at least somebody interesting to say it. The screenplay for Gladiator was written by Hollywood hacks David H. Franzoni (Jumpin' Jack Flash) and John Logan (Bats -- SCREECH!). Not exactly Dalton Trumbo, here.
As for somebody intereting, I liked seeing Derek Jacobi there, and Reed (who died near the end of filming) was also quite good. Unfortunately, there's no comparing Phoenix to Olivier, but that's not really fair. Crowe does an adequate job, but is missing the energy he had in The Insider and L.A. Confidential. This is his first role of such a magnitude, and he was probably a little too cautious on the set. I couldn't really blame Scott for this. He was too busy carefully crafting a technically difficult film to worry about getting the best performance from his star.
If all you want to see is some gladiator action, I'm afraid you're still going to be disappointed. Those scenes are too short, and the rest of the film is too frustrating. I don't think that this film is going to be exceptionally popular, and its box office will probably drop off quickly after the first weekend. Of course, I was totally wrong about The Sixth Sense, so who knows?
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan