‘Glad’ Tidings – By Michael Wilmington and Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
`Gladiator,” at its best, is a magnificent throwback to the epics of another day. Ridley Scott’s adventure saga about the decline of the Roman Empire — and the rise of the warrior-performers who fought to the death for its crowds’ entertainment — is a movie of almost overwhelming visual grandeur and excitement: a bloody Roman festival capable of leaving any susceptible audience breathless.
Scott, one of the great modern movie stylists, hasn’t made a movie this visually electrifying since his 1982 sci-fi noir classic, “Blade Runner,” which shares with “Gladiator” a similar bleak vision of a loner-hero battling his way though a corrupt, menacing world. Here, though, the imagined terrain is historical. We are trapped not in the grim paranoid future of “Blade Runner” but in a turbulent past: the Roman Empire, which, with all its gaudiness and corruption, has continuously fascinated moviemakers from the first great spectacle movie, Italy’s “Cabiria” (1914), right up through the ’60s, with Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” and Federico Fellini’s “Satyricon.”
Though the genre has been largely moribund since then, “Gladiator” restores its luster; it’s definitely the most visually spectacular of all Roman Empire epics. With the moody, highly physical Australian actor Russell Crowe starring as Maximus, a Roman general, who is enslaved and made a gladiator during the reign of mad emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Scott’s film alternates scenes of exhilarating beauty with stunning, stomach-churning violence.
The movie has a bizarre patchwork screenplay — with real-life characters like Commodus and his father, Marcus Aurelius (played by Richard Harris), mingled with fictitious ones like Maximus — and, in some ways, it isn’t satisfying either dramatically or historically. But, successful script or not, this is a film that drenches you with spectacle, gorges you on excitement.
From its first scene, a hair-raising battle sequence in which Maximus routs an army of barbarians in a Germanic wood shrouded in gray mists, “Gladiator’s” images (often digitally enhanced to make them even more grandiloquent) grip and amaze. And they continue to amaze even as the story gets more melodramatic, as Commodus begins a jealous vendetta against Maximus, the man he’d like to be.
In the opening section, Scott and his writers show Harris’ Marcus Aurelius — whose famous “Meditations” are still read — as a kind of King Arthur turned King Lear, raging against the dying of the light. After deciding to name Maximus, and not his own son, Commodus, as his successor, Marcus foolishly informs demented Commodus of the plan. Commodus promptly strangles his dad, orders Maximus executed (after Maximus refuses to swear allegiance to him) and forges ahead to seduce both Rome and his sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), a scorching beauty who is, of course, in love with Maximus.
Maximus escapes execution, but he is too late to rescue his wife and children from Commodus’ slaughtering centurions. And, after Maximus is captured by another group of soldiers who don’t know his true identity, he is made a gladiator, taught by grizzled Proximo (the late Oliver Reed) how to simultaneously fight and please a crowd.
So, Maximus returns to Rome as one of Proximo’s gladiators, nicknamed “The Spaniard.” After winning massive popularity for his stylish, brave coliseum kills (fighting alongside African fighting buddy Juba, played by Djimon Hounsou of “Amistad”), he links up with Lucilla and the republican senator Gracchus (Shakespearean Derek Jacobi), both of whom want to thwart Commodus’ burgeoning mad dictatorship. And Commodus, even when he recognizes Maximus, is unable to have him killed because of the gladiator’s godlike popularity. Maximus, as idolized as a Roman Muhammad Ali, keeps fighting.
The Roman Empire has been responsible for innumerable movie spectacles and some prodigies of waste, like the near studio-busting “Cleopatra” (1963). Telling this wildly improbable story, Scott and his colleagues employ their $100 million-plus budget with an imperial prodigality. But they get munificent results: filling the screen with one jaw-dropping production triumph after another.
Huge, digitally enhanced views of the coliseum (made to look many times larger than it actually is), packed with roaring crowds, haughty nobles and a simpering announcer (David Hemmings), stretch out, with intimidating vastness and sweep, above the combatants. The palatial Roman interiors reek of decadence and secret vice. The filmmakers keep working visual wonders, while the cast all play their parts to the hilt. With all this, and a near classic outsider-hero performance by Crowe, it’s a movie capable of enthralling, if not quite winning, your heart.
That’s probably because, beneath all its gaudy spectacle, “Gladiator” is a mishmash, with scenes and characters lifted out of other big-budget Roman Empire epics from the genre’s ’50s-’60s heyday. “Gladiator” recycles elements from 1959’s “Ben-Hur” (the revenge structure and the plot of a noble hero turned slave), 1960’s “Spartacus” (about a real-life revolt of gladiators; it also had a rebellious senator named Gracchus, played by Charles Laughton) and, even more strikingly, from 1964’s “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” which covers the same time period (circa 180 A.D.) and has three of the same historical characters (Commodus, Lucilla and Marcus Aurelius).
But it’s an extraordinary mishmash all the same. And Crowe gives an extraordinary lead performance, one that seems all the more remarkable after his brutal cop in “L.A. Confidential” and his chunky scientist in “The Insider.”
Unlike the films it draws from, though, “Gladiator” has no obvious old-style leftist political agenda. It’s not about a slave revolt, like “Spartacus,” or about the decadence of empires, like “Fall.” Instead it’s a classic revenge story, thrown against a backdrop of violent sport and jaded audiences, one intended to draw modern parallels.
Some of those ideas are confused. But “Gladiator” has the kind of super-cinematic qualities and bravura acting that make up for almost anything. In this movie, the crazy emperor’s thumb may be turned down, but not those of the coliseum crowd. Nor the movie audience’s.
Directed by Ridley Scott; written by David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson; photographed by John Mathieson; edited by Pietro Scalia; production designed by Arthur Max; music by Hans Zimmer, Lisa Gerard; produced by Douglas Wick, Franzoni, Branko Lustig. A DreamWorks Pictures and Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:34. MPAA rating: R (intense, graphic combat).
Maximus ………….. Russell Crowe
Commodus …………. Joaquin Phoenix
Lucilla ………….. Connie Nielsen
Proximo ………….. Oliver Reed
Gracchus …………. Derek Jacobi
Marcus Aurelius …… Richard Harris