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With: Russell Crowe, Richard Harris, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Neilsen, Oliver Reed, Djimon Hounsou, Derek Jacobi
Written by: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson
Directed by: Ridley Scott
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 154
Date: 05/01/2000

Gladiator (2000)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Chariots of Ire

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1955, Howard Hawks made a very good epic spectacle called Land of the Pharaohs that depicted a slave uprising against an evil pharaoh. William Faulkner wrote the screenplay, but later expressed his disappointment about the project because he "didn't know how ancient Egyptians talked." Nonetheless, Hawks and Faulkner tried their best and pulled off an exciting and logical movie. I wish I could say the same for the new Gladiator, which also fails to get the flavor of the period dialect. But it sounds like they didn't even try.

Actually, that's the least of Gladiator's crimes. This is a monstrously bad movie with nothing to offer. The first thing anyone wants to see in a gladiator movie is most likely the battle scenes. I'm sure my faithful readers are tired of this harangue but, once again, the filmmakers have obscured the fight scenes with bad photography and editing. There's one specific scene when our hero, Maximus (Russell Crowe), is about to get killed with a sword in the back of his neck. All of a sudden he has the sword, but it happens in such quick cuts, it's not clear exactly how he got it. I suspect the filmmakers didn't know either and just cheated a little bit.

The battle scenes in the coliseums, the bread-and-butter of any gladiator movie, are just awful. Each scene consists of about 900,000 shots lasting less than a second each, and most of them are some kind of close-up: a hand, a tiger's face, a chain. How are we supposed to put this information together so fast? Is this thrilling to anyone?

The next reason that people might go to a gladiator movie is to admire Russell Crowe (and I don't mean his acting style). That's fine. He looks good in his sleeveless leather armor, but his character is pretty much a brooding lump. His entire personality comes from things that happen externally.

The plot begins with Russell as Maximus winning some major battle for Rome and being asked by the aging Emperor (Richard Harris) to ascend the throne instead of the Emperor's spoiled son (Joaquin Phoenix). In retaliation the son kills his own father and then Maximus's family and throws Maximus into slavery where he becomes a reluctant gladiator, eventually becoming a folk hero and facing the emperor in the ring.

If Crowe has nothing to do and he's the hero, imagine what it's like for the others. Phoenix is flat-out bad, playing your typical one-dimensional nasty villain with beady eyes and over-the-top line readings (modeling himself after the Billy Zane character in Titanic, no doubt). Harris looks like he's been propped up with a stick, but lucky for him, he dies in the first 20 minutes. I wasn't so lucky. I was there for the entire 2 1/2 hours. Connie Neilsen, Oliver Reed (in his last role), Djimon Hounsou, and Derek Jacobi also appear.

The dialogue, by three writers (David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson) -- and God knows how many other uncredited script doctors -- seems to have been stolen from all the worst parts of a couple of hundred recent movies. It's thuddingly dull and we've heard it all before. Not one scene springs to life.

Gladiator is directed by Ridley Scott, who will always be in my good book for making Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and Thelma and Louise (1991). But he's always been more miss than hit, with such duds as Legend (1986), Someone to Watch Over Me (1987), Black Rain (1989), 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), and White Squall (1996). Add Gladiator to that list. I think the thing that Scott missed out on was the sense of fun and camp that gladiator movies can bring. It's impossible to watch Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959), or even Mario Bava's Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) without a silly grin on your face. Gladiator offers no grins or thrills, only boredom and emptyheaded-ness.

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