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United Kingdom/USA 2000
Directed by
Ridley Scott
155/171 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Gladiator

Synopsis: The Roman Empire is at the height of of its power having just subdued Germania. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is close to death and in order to save the Rome from its own decadence, passes over his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) as successor, choosing instead his victorious General Maximus (Russell Crowe). Mad with jealousy, Commodus orders Maximus executed and murders his family. Maximus escapes and seeks his revenge.

The sight of the Dreamworks logo at the head of a film sends a wave of apprehension through this reviewer. By and large Ridley Scott manages to transcend the aesthetics of schmaltz that is that studio's idea of entertainment. The film rose and rose in my estimation until the cheesiest of endings sent it plummeting. Notwithstanding, Scott's bravura direction and an extraordinary high level of craftsmanship makes this an enormously persuasive film.

Essentially an updating of Cinemascope classics such as Ben Hur and Spartacus, and particularly indebted to the latter, Gladiator is an extremely well-made action adventure film built around the time-honoured myths of individual male heroism that also fires a broadside at populist politics and the psychology of the masses. The essential simplicity of the well-worn plotline (the pursuit of revenge by the wronged hero) is masked by an extraordinary level of craftsmanship in every department from costume  (Janty Yates won an Oscar for Costume Design) to music to cinematography but especially in the marvellous computer-enhanced imagery. The extent of the latter is somewhat of a drawback from the point of view of involvement ("how did they do that"? one wonders too often) and it also throws into question the label so commonly attributed to this film "epic". For despite its often panoramic sweep this is hardly an epic in the manner of Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, where being transported into reality of the vast emptiness of the desert was an integral element of the film's exploration of the legend. In Gladiator the vastness is a trick and cinema is not an voyage into reality but an escape from it. Too often the architectural scenes looked computer-generated, and in the final scene Julia Robert's Peter Pan would not have been out of place. Perhaps one day, as with Blade Runner, we'll see a Director's Cut that excises this ridiculously clichéd ending.

Whether or not he was responsible for the ending, for the rest of the film Scott's direction is masterful and he keeps his very limited material moving along nicely, from the opening set piece to the final showdown between the main protagonists. The film deals largely with the tussle between Maximus and Commodus and like any good competition the thrill for the spectator is a jolly good punch up. Whether the spectator will feel satisfied is another matter as, unlike the standard action film, here the violence is alluded to more than it is graphically depicted. Whilst there are plenty of heads being burst open like melons the editing is so quick (once again to disguise the computer-generated imagery) that it's not clear what is going on and who is doing what to whom. Let it be said, however, that it hurts. This film makes the would-be macho thumpings in Fight Club look like a hair-pulling match. Our Russell does an impressive job as Maximus the killing machine, though his pecs aren't quite up to Hollywood standards and it's never apparent why he inspires such devotion as he seems to be a decidedly aloof character. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as the warped Commodus, whilst Richard Harris and Oliver Reed (in his final screen role) both are outstanding. Reed died before the filming was completed, requiring the producers to do some snappy cut-and-pasting in order to resolve his character, the scenes of him giving the compound keys to Crowe, and his murder by praetorian guards both being manufactured in post-production.

FYI: Universal's 2005 Special Extended Version adds an extra 16 minutes or so and if the ending is still terribly schmaltzy, overall this is the better version.  All the characters seem much more substantial withJoaquin Phoenix getting more screen time including a striking scene between himself and Quintus after he finds out that Maximus is alive and Connie Nielsen also making more of an impression, although  the score by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard did seem to be intrusive at times.

 

 

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