So Gladiator has a lot to match up to in my mind. And man, it tries. It imagines a truly sprawling Second Century Rome. Its star, Russell Crowe – so good at playing men with quiet depths (it’s what I loved about him in The Insider) – is an actor with gravity, presence and passion; when he swings a sword here, you know his heart is in it. And its director, Ridley Scott, made what I think is a close-to-perfect film when he made Blade Runner.
But there isn’t a kick to Gladiator, even with the battles, blood and screaming onscreen.
Crowe stars as Maximus, a Roman general who is betrayed after he wins a frontier war in Germania. He is nearly killed, but escapes – then is enslaved and forced to fight for his life in the gladiator rings of the outer provinces.
While this is happening, the young, insecure and disturbed Emperor Commodus – who ordered Maximus’s death – has brought the gladiator battles back to Rome, providing a bloody spectacle to distract the populace from raging disease and plague. Commodus is played by Joaquin Phoenix, of To Die For and the worthy film Return to Paradise, with the scary sense of a fundamentally stupid man who quickly learns he can be ruthless and just as quickly decides he must stay ruthless – a good example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. It’s Phoenix’s biggest, most substantial role yet; well done.
Soon Maximus, growing famous as the gladiator “The Spaniard,” is brought to Rome and begins planning to bring down Commodus. And this makes Commodus’s life and rule more complicated: Maximus is too good to be killed in the ring and too popular to be killed outside of it. So, to put it simply, all hell breaks loose…supposedly. But there is an arm’s-length feeling, a distance, to much of the film; I don’t feel for these people as they fall into crisis.
The problem is not there at first, thankfully, and that is due almost entirely to Richard Harris, who stars as aged emperor Marcus Aurelius. Harris appears briefly yet poignantly, sadly surveying the intense opening battle between the Romans and the Germanic tribes. He wishes to strengthen Rome, which he fears is rotting from within, and finds a kindred spirit in Maximus.
It is in this opening – the best part of the film – where Gladiator comes closest to doing what Spartacus did: balancing the concerns of nations with the fears and hopes of people. There is a quiet hope here, and a sense that Maximus and Marcus Aurelius are good men trying to make the world better. (This is reinforced later when Maximus receives a memento that reminds him why he is fighting. That’s the other best moment.)
But once treachery happens, and Commodus has become Emperor, that goes out the window. Gladiator turns into a simpler story of revenge, with gladiator battles that feel more like WWF bouts than anything resembling reality – Roger Ebert even thought The Rock was in this film [2007 note: OK, I was wrong on that] – and all of the effort by Crowe, Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Derek Jacobi and the late Oliver Reed can’t make it more than that.
Ridley Scott can do better. I’m hoping that he’s doing better now: he is directing Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, another film that I felt had a real life and power to it. There should be blood flowing through the veins of Hannibal. Good luck, Mr. Scott. [2007 note: my one-word review of the film Hannibal: “Ugh.”]