Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" is an interesting and attractive action movie, but
not a very forceful one. It needs to spend more time with the gladiator
himself. This is a "hero out for revenge" picture that keeps cutting away to
its cardboard villain, just as we're starting to cheer on the protagonist.
It's like channel-hopping between "Spartacus" and "Caligula".
Russell Crowe stars as Maximus, a Roman army general under emperor Marcus
Aurelius (Richard Harris). Marcus is so impressed by Maximus's leadership
that he appoints him as his successor. His son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is
not best pleased by this news, as he himself had expected to be next in line
for the throne. Commodus kills his father, seizes power, and orders the death
penalty for Maximus and his family.
Of course, Maximus escapes this fate, but his wife and child do not. Then
Maximus is kidnapped and sold into slavery. His master, Proximo (Oliver
Reed), forces him to become a gladiator, and when his military training leads
to great slaughtering talent, Proximo takes him to Rome, to perform at the
Coliseum. There the crowd falls in love with him, which forces Commodus into
an awkward position; yes, he's found Maximus, but he can't deal with him,
because if he kills him then he'll lose the support of his people.
The movie is basically taken up by Maximus and Commodus doing a lot of
plotting against each other, punctuated by lofty speeches and gruesome
fights. That is as it should be. The problem is that we don't spend enough
time with Maximus -- the film is divided pretty much equally between him and
the enemy, when it needs to be much more single-minded. Look at "Ben-Hur" or
"Braveheart" -- these films are driven completely by their heroes'
determination, and that's why we get emotionally involved. Crowe gives a
great performance as Maximus -- he has a penetrating stare, commanding voice,
muscular body and towering demeanour. He's a powerful, passionate Hollywood
lead, and we want to invest our care in him. We just don't get the chance.
Because "Gladiator" never gets us wrapped up in Maximus's struggle, the
action sequences are not as tense or affecting as they should be. We can't
simply enjoy the excitement of the violence, either, because it's not
stimulating, it's sick. Roman bloodlust is one of the most shameful things in
history, and Scott, the director, presents it realistically, throwing us into
the middle of gladiator fights by way of giddy close-ups and shutter speeds,
while the chants of the despicable onlookers thunder at our ears in stereo
What we have here, ultimately, is one amazing piece of acting and several
flourishes of wonderful technique, spoiled by unwanted distractions. The
overall bold, colourful nature of the filmmaking might have been enough to
recommend the picture if its better parts hadn't led us to expect something
superior. Strange: "Gladiator" would have been a more enjoyable movie if it
had been made with less skill.
Copyright © 2000 UK Critic