Gladiator * * * *
Director: Ridley Scott.
Screenplay: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris, Tommy Flanagan, David Hemmings, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, Tomas Arana, Spencer Treat Clark, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Omid Djalili, Tony Curran, Michael Sheen.
When I went to see Gladiator on it’s release in 2000, I walked out the cinema bitterly disappointed. It went on to win 5 Oscars (including Best Picture) and received a further 7 nominations. This only added to my feelings of resentment towards it. As a result, I chose to avoid seeing it again and didn’t mince my words on my dislike for it. However, plenty of people – who’s opinions I respect – seemed to love it. For that reason, I chose to have a reappraisal.
During the days of the Roman Empire, dedicated soldier Maximus (Russell Crowe) loyally serves the emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). When the emperor is killed, Maximus refuses to transfer his loyalty to his son and new emperor, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and suffers the consequences. He is ordered to be killed but manages to escape, ending up in the hands of slave trader Proximo (Oliver Reed), who pits him into the Roman Colosseum as a gladiator. It’s here that Maximus realises he can still use the arena and the crowd to his benefit and plan his revenge on Commodus.
On only my second viewing of this film, my opinion has changed and changed for the better. I still have issues with it but it’s granduer is undeniably impressive and as a slice of entertainment it can’t be faulted. I can honestly admit now, that my scornful opinion of this film was slightly unjust. It was much better than I remember but still not the classic it’s proclaimed to be. For a start, it has a high tendency for melodrama. This is acceptable in some cases but with the acclimations that Gladiator has recieved over the years, I find it needs to be scrutinised a little further. One of the main causes for it’s melodramatic approach is some ridiculous dialogue. Reportedly, during production Russell Crowe himself had complaints with screenwriter William Nicholson’s dialogue, apparently telling him it was “garbage”. I found that to be the case in several scenes and when delivering it, the uncomfortableness in the actors looked apparent. However, they manage to carry it well enough; Crowe is a commanding presence in his Oscar winning role but it’s by no means his best performance. I think his abilities were better tested in previous films “L.A. Confidential” and especially “The Insider“, which he deserved the Oscar for. Phoenix is another actor I admire and he also delivers a good performance but unfortunately suffers with a poorly written and stereotypical character. He’s no more than a cartoon villain – complete with dark eye shadow – and he couldn’t really get any more nasty. Old hands, Harris and Reed phone their performances in and it looks as if Reed is just there for the beer tokens. Jacobi, however brief, shows his thespian abilities and the always excellent Djimon Hounsou is wasted in another poorly written role. There’s not a lot going on for the character’s, as ultimately, this is all about the spectacle. And a fine, grandiose one it is. With “Blade Runner” and most recently “Prometheus“, Scott has never been known to scrimp on the visual front and this is no different. It is
exquisitely detailed (kudos to cinematographer John Mathieson) and filmed in the grandest of scales. The director can’t be faulted in his ability to capture the hearts and minds of an audience and this is no more apparent than the impressively choreographed battle scenes and wonderfully ethereal afterlife sequences – shot with a highly artistic eye. Such scenes are afforded a greater power by a superb score from Hans Zimmer and the haunting vocal talents of Lisa Gerrard (for those unaware, check out her beautiful work with Australian outfit “Dead Can Dance“). On a visual and audio front, this film can’t be reckoned with but unfortunately, I found it to succumb to formula. Despite the fact that the real life Commodus did actually fight in the the gladiatorial arena, the ending stretched credulity for me but I suppose dramatic license is commonplace in film’s of this type.
I enjoyed this a far-sight more than I used to, as it’s undeniably epic and visually arresting. Essentially though, this is an action movie. A good one but not much more than an action movie dressed in the Emperor’s clothes.