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Gladiator Style
by Lucius Shepard
August 2000

Slaves, tumblers, noble warriors, barbarian hordes, rotten-to-the-core boy emperor who's sprung for his sister, bread and circuses, betrayal and treachery…

Sounds like a bad Star Trek episode, right? Well, not quite... though the script for what promises to be the first megahit movie of the year, Gladiator, has much in common quality-wise with some of the lesser adventures of the Starship Enterprise. Director Ridley Scott does not boldly go where no man has gone before, but rather treads roads traveled by many a Hollywood hack, creating a hybrid of Ben Hur and Spartacus, arguably the two most successful films of the Roman-epic sub-genre. Russell Crowe plays the Roman general Maximus, but Badassicus would be a more appropriate name for this guy, because not only is he a man's man, a general's general, beloved of his soldiers, his emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), and the faithful German shepherd who follows him into battle, he is also a matchless warrior, a buffed-out, sword-twirling, shield-bashing stone-cold slayer capable of chopping half a dozen Goths into Caesar salad without breaking a sweat. Think Bruce Lee in cool armor, Steven Seagal without the pigtail, Conan with a brain.

As the movie begins, Max is engaged in subduing the last serious threat to the Empire in Germania, and after a whole mess of limb-severing, gore-spattering heroics, he is given one more assignment to complete before he can return home to his family—he is to become the heir of Marcus Aurelius and oversee the ceding of power to the Senate and the restoration of the Roman republic. But the emperor's son Commodus (I can't improve on this name) feels just a little left out, maybe a little vulnerable, and before Marcus Aurelius can implement his order, the son kills the father, ascends to the throne, and sends Max off to be executed. He fails, however, to reckon with the general's skillz. Max offs his executioners in a ten-second flurry of stabbing and slicing, then rides south toward his estate, where he discovers that his wife and son have been crucified. In a curiously unfocused scene, a slave caravan happens past the estate and stumbles upon Max passed out beside the graves he has dug for his family. He wakes to find himself en route to the Roman Province of Zuccabar (huh?). There he is sold to Proximo (the late Oliver Reed), the owner of a gladiatorial school who back in his day earned freedom by dint of his prowess in the Coliseum. Under Proximo's tutelage, Max becomes a gladiator supreme, given to dispatching eight opponents with the bored �lan of Shaquille O'Neal competing in a kid's hoops tournament. Eventually he is sent to Rome to participate in the six-month-long festival of blood sport that Commodus has ordained in order to take the minds of the citizenry off poverty and plague. In the space of a few weeks Max—laying waste to tigers, charioteers, and pretty much anything that moves—becomes a hero to the Roman mob, more popular than the emperor. When Commodus discovers his identity, the stage is set for a thoroughly implausible sequence of events that leads to Max gaining his vengeance and restoring the republic.

Though saddled by dialogue that is frequently embarrassing ("When I give the signal, unleash hell") and a plot fraught with illogic, Russell Crowe carries this ton of cold lasagna on his back and makes it, for the most part, watchable by virtue of his remarkable screen presence. With the exception of Oliver Reed, the rest of the cast is not up to his standard. Especially awful is Joaquin Phoenix, whose whiny-teen-psycho take on Commodus would have been more suitable to Scream IV—it may well be that even today the late lamented River could out-act his younger brother. Connie Neilson is adequate as Commodus' sister/love interest, but the role is underwritten and she spends much of the time looking either grave or tearful. Ultimately, however, it's Ridley Scott who is responsible for the failure of Gladiator to transcend its genre. His best films, Alien and Bladerunner, rely on claustrophobic environments for their wonderfully achieved atmospheres and have tight, almost minimalist plots. Here he is confronted by a complex story that takes place on a variety of wide stages, and his artistic sensibility is not equal to the task. He seems unsure. His usual accuracy in fitting atmosphere to material falters, and he appears to be reaching for some new technique to deal with unfamiliar problems, referencing the flashy MTV style of Michael Bay and others of the new and far less accomplished action directors. The fight scenes, though generally energetic, suffer from far too many close-ups and quick cuts, and one rarely gets a sense of the dynamic tapestry of violence. Despite forty years of evolution in stunt work and special effects, not one of this film's set pieces comes near to rivaling the chariot race in Ben Hur, and Scott's virtual Rome, contrived by means of CGI effects, looks more like an outtake from The Phantom Menace than a believable representation of an ancient empire. Further, the story is intercut by a recurring dream sequence emblematic of Max's desire to return home that might have been somewhat effective had it not been accompanied by a score of New Agey Celtic warbling over a synthesized background.

Yet at the same time there is the sense that Scott has sacrificed too much in the interests of action and atmosphere. The story often seems like a device designed to string together the fight scenes. Unlike the long and carefully crafted scenes at the gladiator school in Spartacus, which served to create tension and succeeded in making us care for even the minor characters in the slave army, in Gladiator this material is given short shrift. Max's comrades-in-arms are distinguishable merely by their size and skin color, and their fates, whether happy or sad, have minimal emotional impact. None of the relationships in the film are provided more than a simplistic treatment. A particular liability to the plot is the lack of attention given the Senate's opposition to Commodus, a conflict rife with dramatic possibility; as it stands, the power of the Senate comes across as a minor impediment to Commodus' apparent desire to turn Rome into a bloody version of Spring Break.

Thanks to its many flaws, Gladiator is in the end a vacuous and barely serviceable film, nothing more, and its most important legacy is likely to be that it establishes Russell Crowe as a major star, lending box office credibility to his obvious talent. Let's hope that in the future he chooses projects that will allow that talent to show itself to better effect.