AH, SPRING. The chirping of birds, the rustling of wind in the grass, the smashing of skulls, the severing of limbs, the crashing of chariots, and the approving roar of a bloodthirsty crowd—all of which signals that summer action-movie season is near. In the meantime, we'll have to content ourselves with this vividly updated pastiche of old toga flicks like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, and Quo Vadis. But those are musty memories for younger viewers, who only know British director Ridley Scott for Alien, Blade Runner, and stylish dreck like G.I. Jane. A veteran behind the camera, Scott isn't renowned for his command of story (Thelma & Louise took an Oscar for a screenplay he didn't author), and Gladiator certainly feels like it was written by committee and template.
directed by Ridley Scott
with Russell Crowe, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, and Joaquin Phoenix
opens May 5 at Cinerama, Neptune, others
As a result, the script efficiently establishes that brave general Maximus (Russell Crowe) is like a son to dying emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), whose own petulant son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) hates Maximus as a result— setting up the inevitable grudge-and-vengeance dynamic that drives the modern box office. Like Heston's Ben-Hur, Crowe's family-loving hero is quickly dumped to the bottom of a tyrannical, corrupt social order, finding himself a slave and gladiator who must fight in bloody commercial arenas to survive.
And fight he does. In the film's first set-piece, a forest battle with the Goths, Maximus slices and dices with fierce abandon. Aided considerably by computer-generated effects (to produce crowds and scope), the mayhem illustrates that Scott studied the beach landing sequence of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Later, in a desert hicktown stadium, Maximus proves his 鬡n at decapitation and casual death-thrusts, winning the applause of a flea-bitten audience. "I'm an entertainer," explains his boss/owner (Oliver Reed, in his last film role), which means that Maximus must reluctantly embrace such lethal showmanship to reach Broadway—in other words, Rome—where he intends to kill power-mad Commodus.
BETWEEN THE BOUTS, Gladiator is smart enough to raise the issue of violence-as-entertainment, but stupid enough to drop the matter when convenient. Therein lies the irony and limitation of the film's rousing spectacle, exemplified when cheers erupt at the demise of a villain—not from the Colosseum, but from the filmgoers seated beside you. Maximus, the battle-weary soldier, gets no enjoyment from such deaths, so why do we? In its subplots, Gladiator professes scorn for the bread-and-circus routine. "Rome is the mob," sighs an idealistic senator (Derek Jacobi, whose presence recalls the BBC miniseries I, Claudius). Commodus' sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), an old flame of Maximus', also raises a voice of pacifism and republicanism.
Like Julie Taymor's superior Titus (to which Gladiator will inevitably be compared), Ridley Scott wants to seize his audience with a gripping, visceral tale, and Gladiator succeeds as such. But while its optimistic coda is strikingly similar to that of Titus, it doesn't convince us that better, more civilized times lie ahead. The body counts of contemporary blockbusters show how Commodus has it right: The masses prefer gore to Gore. Just look at the WWF matches on TV. Gladiator is their big-screen, big-budget equivalent (albeit with better acting and the requisite Hans Zimmer score). "Are you not entertained?" a disgusted Maximus demands of his spectators, and they—we—undoubtedly are.
Since it can't rewrite history, Gladiator can't prevent the fate of its Roman setting and cinematic genre. It only succeeds in delaying the inevitable fall, and ignores what will rise in its place.