If you're going to spend $100 million on a movie, this is the way to do it.
Director Ridley Scott's Gladiator puts every dollar on the screen in a ravishing spectacle of action, adventure, history, and (by gum) even drama. It's a long-awaited return to form for the once-visionary creator of Blade Runner and Alien, two of the most imitated films of the past 20 years. And for what's ostensibly a summer moviea genre that typically treats us to criminal wastes of money like Speed 2 or ArmageddonGladiator is Oscar-worthy filmmaking that doesn't underestimate the intelligence of its audience. While many may wonder whether a gladiator epic is worth revisiting now, its timing couldn't be more perfect.
Way back in the 50s, so the story goes, movie studio execs resorted to grand spectacles in order to woo audiences away from their TV sets. They hired thousands of actors, put them in togas, and placed them in the ancient lands of Egypt and Rome for Cleopatra or Land of the Pharaohs. (Actually, such "sword and sandal" epics with massive sets and huge casts were made from the very start of popular cinema, with silent films like Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis, and Intolerance.) It's ironic, then, that TV networks brought back the Hollywood epic when studios considered such expensive, large-scale productions passémini-series like the recent Arabian Nights prove that audiences still have a fancy for such mega-spectacles. But Gladiator is bigger, smarter, and more evocative than any of its toga predecessorsand in this age of WWF smackdown soap operas and other assorted forms of "sports entertainment," its gladiatorial themes are especially relevant.
But it was hardly a sure bet that Ridley Scott could pull it off. While his early work (including his 1977 debut film The Duellists and even the terminally silly Legend) revealed a brilliant eye for imagery and a gift for transporting viewers into new worlds, his subsequent films betrayed an inability to pick good scripts. Someone to Watch Over Me, Black Rain, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, White Squall all very nicely shot, very shallow bits of work that were painfully unappealing. (Even his one post-Alien success at the box office, 1991's Thelma & Louise, wasn't a project that took full advantage of his talents.) Consequently, Scott earned the reputation of a director who was more interested in composing nice camera angles than in creating strong characters (though Thelma & Louise was hardly lacking in character development, and Alien provided all that was required). With Gladiator, however, he has all the elements to show us what he can doa personal story set on a massive scale, big action setpieces, and a period setting that is fully realized with superlative art direction, costume design, computer graphics, and the painterly cinematography of John Mathieson.
Russell Crowe commands the film just as completely as his character commands legions of Roman troops; he stars as Maximus, general of the northern armies and charged with defeating the hordes of Germania. In a bravura opening battle sequence, Crowe demonstrates why he's considered one of the most naturalistic (or perhaps animalistic?) actors since Brando, engaging in bloody hand-to-hand combat. Even so, once the action's over, Crowe is able to convey different dimensions to his general; through his very body language, you get the sense that this is not a guy who's sucking up Roman gloryhe's just a soldier tired of his job. Not unlike Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Crowe is able to bring a lot of depth to his character through his own intelligence and force of personalityhe's living the role on camera, and he's utterly believable. I can't think of another actor today who could've pulled it off.
Thankfully, Crowe has a really good story to work with. Maximus is chosen by the aging Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) to succeed him as ruler, with the goal of eventually returning the empire to a republican government. This means cutting out Marcus' heir, Commodus (an especially creepy Joaquin Phoenix), who doesn't take well to the idea; in fact, he orders Maximus, as well as his family in Spain, to be executed. Maximus escapes, but is forced into slavery and is eventually trained to be a gladiator. When Commodus "rewards" the people of Rome by reinstating the gladiatorial games at the Colosseum, Maximus returns as a contestantand must find a way of exacting his revenge for the murder of his loved ones.
Naturally, since most of Gladiator's action takes place in the sands of the Colosseum, violence is in abundance; and with Scott's exacting eye for detail, it comes in great splurts of blood, shredding of bodies, and crunching of skulls. But it's so artfully and excitingly shotusing a few camera tricks from Saving Private Ryanthat the gore is almost subliminal in its flashing speed through the projector. And it fits within Scott's goal to make the most complete picture possible of life in ancient RomeGladiator brims with a sense of messy urban existence unlike any other toga epic before it. It's as thickly detailed and true to life as Blade Runner's futuristic L.A.
Gladiator does, however, have a few script problemsat over two and a half hours it feels long, and the storyline sometimes "cheats" a little too obviously (such as when Maximus is able to ride his horse from Germania to Spain in no time at all, and then gets picked up by a slave trader who's conveniently ambling by just as he passes out). Nevertheless, it works on multiple levels: as an adventure yarn, a period piece, an action pic, a personal drama, and a large-scale epic. And for just seven bucks, it'll be the most transportive movie experience you'll have this year.