We decry the sensationalistic programming of shows like Fox’s When Romans Attack but really, the impulse to see pounding, horrific acts is older than history. Why? Who knows? Ask a sociologist. All I know is, Gladiator will satisfy that craving better than a Spago’s VIP dinner would feed a Somalian refugee. It’s brutal, it’s gory, it’s got that strange, over-real sped-up feel that Saving Private Ryan had in places. I think it’s that the film is shot at more than 24 frames per second but is still shown at normal speed. The storyline is, sadly, a true classic (in the Classical Roman sense of the word) in its predictable nature – but you know what? Not one human watching it will care. It’s amazing to look at, amazing to imagine that we as humans were ever so openly savage as the Romans were. I say “openly savage” because it’s clear that American (and other western cultures to a lesser extent) tastes run toward the bloodlusty in every aspect. We are freaks and we trip out at the slightest suggestion of sexuality (positive lust) but then we glaze over with glee at a smoothly rendered digital beheading (negative lust). And those who say “kids today” are becoming desensitized to violence are ignoring the fact that we have been desensitized since well before Jesus’ time.
Gladiator is in the same gore camp as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, so if you hate that, just wait until it’s cheaper and still go see it. Anyway, enough with the bloodlust. The story is a nice, heroic manly tale, and what I have noticed lately is the only actors who really can be MEN, really be macho killer warriors with honor and all that good business, are Australians. Enter Russell Crowe, not baring his chest (but yes, he lost the weight from The Insider) but baring his soul to thousands of screaming hordes, and it is good. It is very good. Connie Nielsen is the stately goddess with nothing to do but look regal and fretful, playing the sister of Joaquin Phoenix, and it’s no shock that he becomes Caesar, is it? Joaquin, while pretty much as good as his late brother, is eerie and revolting in this film, as a man and as a face. The audience was verbal in their distaste for him, and he got some unintentional laughs as well. He’s a simpish, whiny, petulant nutjob, which is fortunate for Crowe and the story, but kind of unbearable to watch. Richard Harris gives his last performance as ailing Caesar Marcus Aurelius, and his Arthurian noblesse shines through, highlighting his onscreen son’s failings as a man.
Unlike say, The Phantom Menace, the spectacular visuals really mean something in this film. It’s not creating Rome at the peak of its power just to say, “Look how dense and amazing we can make this look,” it’s to show those of us who know the Coliseum from the cartoons that it was once a mighty architectural wonder; the whole city was a marvel, two thousand years ago! It’s stunning, realistic looking, easily as wondrous to behold as Menace was, but all supporting the story, not replacing or overwhelming it. John Mathieson’s cinematography is lovely, just lovely. Director Ridley Scott knows a couple of things about action and suspense and so forth, as evidenced by his facility here and in such films as Alien and Blade Runner – but he also knows a little about interpersonal drama (Thelma and Louise and Someone To Watch Over Me) – so he can combine humans into his amazing backdrops to make something bigger.
Viscerally, this movie is a kick. Intellectually, it’s no great challenge, but it’s wonderful to see this kind of epic be made, be expensive, and be worth watching. Just to sit and fathom how brutal and primitive the conquerors of the Roman Empire were (never mind the conquered) and still how technologically impressive they are, is worth seeing the movie. Russell Crowe is noble and mighty, and can’t seem to help but attract a huge following no matter where he goes – a true man of the people, a noble and straightforward soul – not at all the thing in the birthplace of Republics. There is much more to say about this film, but it is too large to be encompassed by my pithy blurbs. You must see it for yourself.
A little trivia: SPQR means Senatus Populus Que Romanus (not to be confused with Romanis Eunt Domum), which is the “good guys'” philosophy of how Great and Mighty Rome should be run. The movie does skip over the whole notion of Empiricism being not so good, but the idea was that tyrants = bad, republics and democracies = good. A side definition of SPQR is apparently “small profits, quick returns,” and I hope that Gladiator makes HUGE money (it took two powerful studios, Universal and Dreamworks, to back it) instead. Huge PQR!!!!
MPAA Rating R for intense, graphic combat.
Release date 5/7/2000
Time in minutes 155
Director Ridley Scott