Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Gladiator

By Marc Savlov

MAY 15, 2000: 

D: Ridley Scott; with Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, David Hemmings. (R, 154 min.)

Would somebody please tell Ridley Scott he left the dust machines on too long? Watching Gladiator leaves you as parched and dry as the khaki clouds that invariably swirl around these dead and dying legions of Rome. Scott was previously known for his mastery of moistness: Alien has been described as being "a haunted house in space," but it was really a haunted house under a giant leaky faucet. Likewise Blade Runner, a film that did more for the fine art of condensation than it ever did for Sean Young. And need I even mention Black Rain or White Squall? It's perplexing, then, to see all this dusty haze swirling around Scott's new epic. The splendor of Rome is fairly cloaked in the stuff (while menacing thunderheads mass overhead), and while there is precipitation in the air, it's of the more sanguine variety. Neon-red freshets of gore dance and spatter the lens like sneezy exhalations at an allergy convention, and kill-or-be-killed tough guys stagger around spouting great washes of crimson along with stuttery oaths to the gods above. Gladiator owns the sorely coveted title of First Big Summer Movie of the New Millennium, and Scott has crammed the film full of spectacle and pomp and circumstantial evidence that he's misplaced his craft somewhere. There's a thread of a nifty story here ­ Crowe plays Marcus Aurelius' (Harris) favorite general Maximus, who is busted down to slave and then gladiator by the Caesar's cunning offspring Commodus (Phoenix); revenge follows, "honor and strength" prevail, et cetera ­ but that story seems cribbed from previous, better tales (notably John Milius' Conan the Barbarian, John Boorman's Excalibur, and Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus).Much of what is good about Gladiator ­ and there are a fair number of excellent bits ­ stems from a stoical Crowe and the wild-eyed, tongue-flicking Phoenix. Also on board are Reed, in his final role, as Crowe's slave-owner-cum-gladiatorial-mentor, and Harris as doomed Aurelius, all craggy stares and white, billowing mane. Several subplots litter the proceedings ­ Maximus loses his family, Maximus gains a new family, sort of, Maximus bonds with Juba (Hounsou) ­ but they feel tacked on to the main event, the battle scenes. At one point the gladiators and the Roman centurions square off in the Coliseum to re-create the fall of Carthage. "Aren't the barbarians supposed to lose?" is the question that's floated after Maximus' upstart gladiators soundly rout the Romans. You take your humor where you can get it, I suppose. Much press has been given to the film's swollen CGI effects, which attempt to recreate the matchless glory of Rome circa 140 A.D. Sadly, however, the small plaster model of the Coliseum that Commodus keeps fingering in his lair is more realistic-looking than the multi-million-dollar effects version, which appears about as bogus as Oliver Reed's liver and only half as useful. There are electrifying moments in Scott's film ­ a battle between Maximus, Romans, and some tigers is particularly kicky ­ but not enough by half. It's a loud, obnoxious, and pleasant-enough entertainment, but hardly the soaring tale of one man's struggle that it was so clearly envisioned to be. Better luck next time, Rid.

2.5 Stars

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