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The Boston Phoenix Rumble in Rome

"Gladiator" gets half the formula right

By Scott Heller

MAY 8, 2000:  The insane popularity of professional wrestling, which is more brutal and vulgar than ever, has smoothed the way for the return of schlock entertainments that seemed utterly passé not long ago. Roller Derby, anyone? Every week, on the Nashville Network. In these cushy times, we seem to need a little cartoon violence to take our minds off the stock market. Director Ridley Scott obliges with Gladiator, a brawny throwback to movie epics of yore that's pumped up with special effects which both help and hurt the cause.

Bloodied and suffering, Russell Crowe still appears to be having a lot better time than he did at the recent Academy Awards, where he was nominated for The Insider. His brooding intensity plays well even in these hoky surroundings. Crowe is Maximus, ancient (circa AD 180) Rome's most legendary general and a personal favorite of the aging emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). After leading his warriors to victory in the film's frosty opening sequence, Maximus just wants to return home to his wife and son. But the emperor, mistrustful of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), his own son and heir, asks Maximus to watch over Rome until democracy can be restored.

Commodus gets wind of the plan, eliminates his father, and moves to have his rival done in. Although Maximus escapes, his beloved family is murdered by the new emperor's henchmen. For all its blather about mob rule and democracy, Gladiator is a revenge melodrama, and a potent one at that. We know Crowe is distraught because he vomits and drools when he sees the bodies of his wife and son. To add injury to insult, they clock the former general on the head and sell him into slavery.

After 45 minutes of exposition made no easier by Crowe's tendency to mumble, Gladiator is finally ready to rumble. Dubbed the Spaniard, our hero becomes a star performer for Proximo (Oliver Reed), a fight promoter in the provinces who hopes to bring the show to Rome, where the real money is. Seasoned by years on the battlefield, Maximus knows his way around a beheading; it's his showmanship that needs work. Reed, who died during the shoot, is a scummy delight as Proximo, dispensing nuggets of wisdom with one eye on the box office, a cross between Yoda and Vince McMahon. As a former slave who earned back his liberty, Proximo persuades Maximus that he can do the same. "Win the crowd," Proximo advises, "and you'll win your freedom."

For a big-budget Hollywood epic, Gladiator is sturdily plotted and surprisingly well written. The film cuts between blunt battles in the ring and the more subtle infighting in the royal palace, everything leading to the inevitable face-off between the seething gladiator and the sneering emperor. The elaborate sets and costumes could swallow up a lesser actor, but Phoenix gleams as the petulant Commodus, who, among other peccadilloes, has unhealthy urges for his icily beautiful sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). Although condemned to play second fiddle, even to this junior-league Nero, Lucilla is the consummate politician her brother can never be. And a few words and glances tell us that she and Maximus once had a thing, and that the sparks haven't died out yet.

The publicity push for Gladiator points out that the movie couldn't have been made without state-of-the-art special effects, which put 30,000 "spectators" in the seats of the Roman Colosseum, itself a constructed set digitally tripled in size. This time, believe the hype. Aside from a sci-fi environment, where anything goes, Gladiator may be cinema's most successful use of digital imagery ever. Overhead shots that swoop over a full Colosseum and panoramic sweeps across ancient Rome are precise and stunning.

If only the action sequences were this good. Audiences will flock to Gladiator for the fights, of course, but I felt let down. Like most of today's action-movie czars, director Scott and his editor, Pietro Scalia, trade cohesion for a wearying fandango of hacks, grunts, and spurts, all cut too fast for the eye to see or the body to experience. The genius of the Colosseum, no matter its size, is to turn all eyes in the same direction. Although the screenwriters offer clever variations (Crowe versus chariots, Crowe versus tigers), Gladiator sacrifices focus for frenzy. Only the final showdown between Maximus and Commodus (clad in snow-white armor) fully satisfies. We are given time to watch the warriors stare each other down, feint and parry, all drawn to human scale.

The World Wrestling Federation and its kind have created a winning recipe by mixing soap-opera histrionics and overblown athleticism. In its suffering hero Maximus, Gladiator gets half the formula right. Too bad, then, that any episode of Smackdown! packs a bigger wallop.


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