#212 Gladiator

(2000, Ridley Scott)

“Are you not entertained?”

In the mid-nineties, there was a TV game show called Gladiators, where PE teachers would battle buffed-up actors in tights on bouncy castles while Ulrika Jonsson grinned at the camera. It was completely ridiculous and silly but it had a certain charm. Of course, it had little relevance to actual gladiators of the Roman Empire, who were often beating each other to a pulp with sharp things and trying to avoid being lion food.

Gladiator is much closer to this reality, although whether or not it’s any less ridiculous than the game show is a matter for debate.

Gladiator features Russell Crowe as Gluteus Maximus Maximus Decimus Meridius, a general in the Roman army, and fiercely loyal to the emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Despite having a male heir, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Aurelius wants to pass power down to Maximus so that he can return power to the Roman Senate. Commodus hears of this and kills his father, automatically claiming power and throwing Maximus into slavery. Maximus is forced to become a gladiator, and vows revenge on Commodus.

Gladiator is a big movie. Ridley Scott spared no expense in producing a major cinematic event. Big battle scenes! Gigantic Roman landscapes! Fancy costumes! Russell Crowe kicking ass! The movie is a massive spectacle.

It’s just a shame that there’s little substance to all this style. For all the spectacle and excitement, the plot is a tad clichéd, the characters are pretty bland across the board and the historical accuracy is questionable. I found myself comparing it to Spartacus constantly, as that was another movie about a gladiator who fights against the tyranny of the Roman Empire. However, Spartacus featured a surprisingly human lead we identify with, and strong themes of justice and freedom and all that fun stuff, while Gladiator featured a generic angry lead and the only themes here are all involving stabbing.

Maximus is not a complex character. Sure, he loses his family, but this doesn’t round him out as a character since their deaths are about as clichéd as a movie can get. Crowe also plays him with the same somewhat confused expression on his face for the entire movie, and it’s never clear what exactly the character stands for or cares about. He just looks bored most of the time, and that’s not a great start for our central character.

But much worse is Commodus. Christ, is he an awful character. I know he’s supposed to be the villain, but he’s so overblown that it’s impossible to take him seriously as a threat. He spends much of the movie whining and complaining like a child and occasionally his voice slips into a weird speech impediment that reminds me of Michael Palin’s emperor in Life Of Brian. Palin was, of course, being deliberately funny, yet Phoenix’s character is equally ridiculous and yet is supposed to be somehow taken seriously.

The plot is also painfully predictable. We know Maximus is going to succeed, because the movie wants us to root for him. We can see Commodus killing his father a mile away. And what’s more, all tension in the battle scenes go out the window because we know that as long as there are two hours of the movie left, Maximus is pretty much safe.

This last point gets particularly silly, as Maximus is thrown into battle after battle with everyone dying around him while he comes out with barely a scratch. It felt as if it was a video game and someone had entered a cheat code for invincibility. This combined with Commodus’ overblown personality made the movie cartoonish instead of interesting.

Sure, it’s visually impressive, but a movie really needs more than a few big-budget battles to keep it going, especially with a three-hour running time. I didn’t like the lead character, the villain was laughable and the story was predictable and clichéd. Possibly one of the most overhyped movies of the last few years.

So no, Maximus, I am not entertained.

Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, Ralf Möller & Richard Harris
Written by David Franzoni, John Logan & William Nicholson
Produced by Douglas Wick, David Franzoni & Branko Lustig
Music by Hans Zimmer, Lisa Gerrard & Klaus Badelt
Cinematography by John Mathieson
Edited by Pietro Scalia

Favourite Scene: Pretty much any time Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) is on screen. She was actually pretty good.
Scene That Bugged Me: Commodus seemingly tries to rape his sister. I think. Loses points because a) I saw it coming, b) it was silly rather than disturbing and c) for being somewhat confusing about what his actual intentions were.

Watch it if: You love big epic Roman battles
Avoid it if: You keep expecting Commodus to talk about his friend Biggus Dickus


Posted on August 22, 2013, in 2000s, Action, Historical and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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