"I am just an entertainer," sniffs one character to another late in
Ridley Scott's Gladiator. The comment is intended as counterpoint to the
hero's moral courage and desire to right wrongs, but it also rings an all-too-familiar chord as the movie season heads into its "summer event"
phase. How often have brain-dead films been defended with a sniff that
it's "just meant to be entertaining?" How often has "entertainment" in the
blockbuster era been defined as "tens of millions of dollars thrown at a
production that began without a completed script?" Critics cringe as the
first of May draws near, knowing that a cadre of Hollywood film-makers who
consider themselves "just entertainers" will be spewing forth grotesquely
inept stories peppered with explosions and digital effects.
With such images in mind, I shouldn't diminish Gladiator by tossing
out so banal a word as "entertaining" -- but it is. I shouldn't succumb to
the temptation to describe it with ad-copy buzzwords like "spectacular!"
or "dazzling!" or "epic!" -- but it is. Movies just don't get much more
fundamentally satisfying on so many levels -- simple without being
simplistic, grand in scope without losing track of its basic appeal.
The time is A.D. 180, where the Roman Empire is finishing the military campaign in Germania that will eliminate the last outpost of
resistance. Leading the troops is General Maximus (Russell Crowe) --
valiant warrior, humble farmer and favorite of Emperor Marcus Aurelius
(Richard Harris). Though Maximus wants nothing more than to return home to
his family at the end of the war, the ailing Marcus Aurelius wants him to
become the next emperor, ultimately to return Rome to a republic. This
understandably troubles Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix),
who kills his father before his will can be known. Succeeding to the
throne, Commodus orders Maximus and his family executed. Maximus escapes,
only to find himself enslaved by gladiator owner Proximo (Oliver Reed). From his now-lowly state, Maximus vows to avenge the deaths of his family
and his emperor.
The story is, to put it bluntly, older than the Roman Empire:
reluctant-but-impossibly-noble hero fights against great odds to bring low
a regal-but-impossibly-dastardly villain. It has been done and done and
done again, because when it's done well, few stories are as viscerally effective. And Gladiator does it remarkably well. Crowe plays Maximus as
straight as he can possibly be played, giving him an iconic grandeur; it's
the kind of role that makes actors into movie stars. Phoenix makes a
sensational sniveling villain, wrapping his parricidal tendencies and
incestuous lechery after his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) in a
pathetically sincere need to be adored. The late Oliver Reed also scores
in his final role as the casually cynical Proximo. Every one of them is
playing a standard film type; every one of them refuses to submit to the
notion that a type can't be played with energy and commitment. As a basic
film story, Gladiator is lean and enthralling.
And it's not too bad as a visual treat, either. Copious use of
digital effects is de rigeur for epic genre films circa 2000, yet there is
nothing remotely obligatory or pointlessly showy about Gladiator's
re-creation of ancient Rome. It's stunning work that raises the ruins of
the Colosseum and captures both the magnificence and the casual brutality
of the culture. The scenes of warfare and gladitorial contests are taut (and graphically gruesome) pieces of action film-making, bringing Ridley
Scott back to the artistic heights he abandoned for films like G.I. Jane
and White Squall. It is becoming a Hollywood clich to claim that "every
dollar is up there on the screen," but that's the way Gladiator feels. The
execution of its technical detail is so precise that it never feels like
more or less
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