“Father of a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife and I shall have my vengeance in this life or the next”
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen
Synopsis: When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an emperor’s corrupt son, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge.
Back in 2000, Gladiator was one of those event movies, widely trumpeted as something of significance by the studio’s publicity department. Anticipation was high. Ridley Scott was a highly-rated director and leading man Russell Crowe was at the height of his fame and screen popularity. The concept of battle within the gladiatorial arena was one that hadn’t been seriously visited since Kubrick’s Spartacus back in 1960, so its subject matter seemed fresh and new to a generation for whom Kirk Douglas was just Michael’s doddery old dad. The budget was rumoured to be around the $100 million mark. And while Gladiator was by no means a failure, and did well at the box office, it never quite managed to be the film we all expected it to be. The plot, you see, is the bulk-standard revenge story of our hero going after the man who killed his family, and overcoming seemingly unsurpassable obstacles in order to do so. There’s nothing wrong with that as a plot – after all, it’s served countless filmmakers well in the past — but it all seems a little too ordinary for a project that appeared to have such lofty ambitions.
Crowe plays Maximus, a famous Roman general whose exploits on the battlefield have endeared him to both the Roman people and their emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). In the opening scenes we see him leading his forces into battle against the barbarous Germans, who deserve everything they get for cutting off the head of the luckless Roman cavalryman despatched to issue a surrender ultimatum (like most mainstream movies, Gladiator is strong on audience emotion cues to nudge us in the right direction. After all, we don’t want the audience sympathising with the people whose homeland is being invaded by foreigners now, do we? Save that for Red Dawn). Anyway, the Romans are victorious, and Maximus is looking forward to returning to his wife and young son on their farm, but Marcus Aurelius has other plans for him. The old emperor knows he is dying, and feels the time is right for a Republic, which he wants Maximus to establish after his death. By doing this, Marcus Aurelius intends to pass over his own son, the petulant and vainglorious Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix).
When Marcus Aurelius informs his son of his plans, Commodus kills his father — in one of cinema’s most unlikely methods of murder — and orders the murder of Maximus and his family. However, Maximus kills his executioners and flees for his home, but is too late to prevent the murders of his son and wife. The wounded Maximus collapses and is captured by a passing slave trader, who sells him and a black man named Juba (Djimon Hounsou) to Proximo (Oliver Reed, unfortunately sharing no screen time with fellow hell-raiser Harris) who trains both men as gladiators. Maximus quickly excels at his new occupation, and it’s not long before Proximo’s Gladiator school is called upon to perform at Rome’s shiny new Colosseum following the newly-installed Emperor Commodus’s decision to reinstate the sport previously banned by his father.
Despite an overlong running time, Gladiator provides reasonably diverting entertainment without ever really amounting to much. The script is one of the film’s weakest areas, with scriptwriter David Franzoni shying away from anything too daring or innovative. In Commodus, he has one of Roman history’s prime nutters, yet he does little with the character other than to turn him into a spoiled and emotionally regressive wimp. Phoenix, who nevertheless provides the film’s most memorable performance, could have done so much more with just a little more to work with, but instead of coming across as an incipient loon, Commodus seems like nothing more than a bad boy who goes too far when peeved. Meanwhile, Crowe broods with a quiet dignity and inner strength that sees him though all his trials with little doubt of their successful outcome. Would a man like Maximus have allowed himself to be a performing slave for so long, one wonders? I can’t see it, somehow. He’d have marshalled the aid of his fellow gladiators and been hotfooting it to Rome in no time at all.
While Ridley Scott’s direction is as polished as you would expect, his use of colour is questionable; too often, he switches between saturated and de-saturated to illustrate the moral or emotional prevalence of the character or surroundings, a practice which quickly grows tiresome. Sometimes it would be nice if moviemakers would credit their audience with enough intelligence to figure out the tone of their movie for themselves without always resorting to such methods. Given the movie budget, the special effects look surprisingly ordinary, with the Colosseum especially appearing almost cartoonish. Things have come a long way since the year 2000, but surely even that year’s ancient technology was able to come up with something more convincing.
Despite all the above moaning, Gladiator isn’t a bad film as such — it’s just that it could have been a lot better given the resources Scott and his team had at their disposal.
(Reviewed 2nd January 2013)