Skip to main content

Win the crowd and you will win your freedom.

Gladiator
(2000)

(SPOILERS) Ridley Scott’s Oscar glory. It must have left him feeling a little peeved, since he went away without the Best Director statuette. Was Gladiator’s winner deserved? How often are the Oscars actually deserved? Gladiator is solid, populist entertainment, the kind of picture that would have been wholly ignored if it hadn’t put bums on seats (which in some respects is a point in its favour). 


It wastes most of the ripe potential it has for commentary and self-reflexivity, as suggested by Russell Crowe’s general turned slave when he demands of the crowds “Are you not entertained?” Such lofty notions are never more than lip service. This is far too linear a movie for hidden depths. Gladiator works for two simple reasons. Firstly, there’s Russell Crowe, lean and matter-of-fact in his charisma; he hasn’t found a role that suits him so well since. Secondly there’s Scott, by this point a no-nonsense director who had long since forsaken artsy shit for processed, production line, and nuance-free visualisations. But nevertheless, one more than capable of adding the necessary thrills to those gladiatorial contests.


As noted, Gladiator was an example of the Academy stepping in line with the public opinion. This had been seen over the previous decade in both its basest form (Titanic) and most unlikely and potentially mould breaking (The Silence of the Lambs). More than the kudos, Gladiator opened studios’ eyes to the potential for the historical epic the way The Lord of the Rings (and the trilogy’s eventual Oscar endorsement) would for the fantasy film a year later. It’s probably not co-incidental that neither genre has seen success quite on that scale since. Troy actually made a bit more than Gladiator globally, but had none of the cultural impact. Mostly studios have just been grateful to break even, despite the high cost, low rewards nature of the genre; the likes of Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, Exodus: Gods and Kings (all from Scott), Noah, King Arthur, Pompeii, Alexander, and even 300 on the comic/historical crossover point. You’d be lucky to claim two of those as unqualified box office champs.


It’s significant that, amid its Oscar splendour, Gladiator didn’t received an award Best Original Screenplay. That it was nominated is perhaps most surprising. Not unusually for the furious pace of movies Scott would churn out over then next decade and a half, the script is its least auspicious element. David Franzoni (credited only with other less than superlative historicals Amistad and King Arthur) had the original-ish idea, owing not a little to 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (Livius there occupies a similar position to Maximus, just without becoming a gladiator). The spine of the movie is identified succinctly by Commodus, pretty much doing the ad men’s hard work; “The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor”.


It wasn’t as smooth sailing as that sounds. John Logan (Bond, Aviator, Rango, The Time Machine, Star Trek: Nemesis; a mixed bag, basically) was brought into finesse Franzoni’s work, improving the dialogue and rewriting the first act by slaying Maximus’ family and so giving him added motivation. Then in came William Nicolson (First Knight, Shadowlands, Les Mis, Unbroken; more mixed bags) to make Maximus more sensitive, improve his friendship with Juba (Djimon Hounsou), and develop the afterlife elements. While I don’t think Maximus has been made too heroic, neither of the latter elements work especially well. The friendship with Juba feels grafted on without any real substance, while the afterlife theme is Scott at his most typically heavy-handed.


Crowe was instrumental in the changes, being a right pain in the arse and telling Nicholson he’d written a big pile of shit. Perhaps he was right, certainly he had the certitude and understanding to add weight to perfunctory/ improvised dialogue (“Unleash hell!”) and he is the movie, basically (first choice Gibson could have done it, no doubt, but he’d have done entirely familiar Mel things with the role). It may have done wonders for his bankability, but it didn’t help Crowe’s rep any. Certainly, if the reports of him screaming he was the best actor in the world are unvarnished, it sounds like was a right prima donna. But he looks, great, with his little hair curls and manly skirt, spinning his sword, sometimes two-handed. Most importantly he lends the proceedings utter conviction. He grounds the picture where it is (frequently) wafer thin, or pulls off lines that simply sound corny now (“My name is gladiator!”)


One might, if one were generous, see the picture’s arrival as prescient. A reflection of the need for heroes with a righteous cause in an age when leaders are waging wars for their own nefarious ends and seizing public feeling through the most bare-faced of manipulations. One such would be “elected” only months after Gladiator was released. It’s appealing to have some one noble and righteous and good to look to in such times. But, of course, we had a not dissimilar historical (although it’s abiding criticism arises from its inaccuracies) reminder of sticking true to one’s beliefs in the martyrdom of Braveheart only a few years before. This sort of thing is sweat off a warrior’s back, if it lands at all.


And it isn’t really Sir Ridley’s thing. Because, as simple as the premise is, it’ s rendered in a manner that is so unfinessed as to be almost perfunctory. This approach ultimately reins in its designs on being an epic. It’s a rudimentary affair, dressed up and polished. There’s not much going on, and the attempts at court intrigue via reliable British thespian royalty can only go so far. This is great art direction, and CGI work, but in a city with about five speaking parts. It feels undernourished, and to carry off political machinations there needs to be nourishment. Accordingly, it’s easy to see why aspects such as the shades of Elysium were added, Crowe’s double running his hand through a field of corn at intervals on his path to death. There are movies where such portents feel fitting and of a piece, but here it is merely mock poetic.


Likewise, the machinations of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) are clodhopping. Phoenix goes right over the top, giving Commodus a lisp and a violent temper. His choices are probably shrewd ones all told, recognising the limitations of the part; his problem is partly one of design that cannot be surmounted. Commodus is a petulant child, cowardly, vain and given to fits of instability. It’s this that leads Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) to pass him over for Emperor; he instruct Maximus that Rome should become a republic again, giving power back to the people and ending corruption. Why couldn’t he have done that while he was alive, eh? And it’s this that leads Commodus to kill his father. But the consequence is, Commodus is never a match of personality for Maximus, despite Phoenix’s attempts to compensate by going bigger. He’s a weasel rather than a snake.


The real Commodus was assassinated, eventually strangled by his personal wrestler Narcissus (who, with Claudius Pompeianus, formed a very loose basis for the Maximus of the movie), but only after 12 years of rule (and having also co-ruled with his father). He was given to fighting as a gladiator, charging a million sesterces a time for the privilege, always winning because his opponents always submitted to their emperor. He built up an endemic level of unpopularity by the end (he was subject to a failed poisoning before he was strangled) and was widely known for his cruelty. Commodus would kill his practice opponents. He was also given to posing as Hercules in the arena, where he would kill the wounded and amputated, clubbing them to death. 


So the movie makes the Commodus appear almost benevolent in comparison. Even knowing such “truth is stranger than fictions”, the final arena showdown translates as overly contrived, particularly when the assorted nobles gather on the Colosseum floor and Gracchus asks, “Who will help me carry him?” There’s no final note admitting a republic wasn’t restored, as that might have been considered even more of a downer.


Still, Scott delivers with the action. The opening battle is overtly indebted to Saving Private Ryan with its suddenly fashionable use of high shutter speed. This creates a choppy, stop motion effect. It’s something that, like shakycam, can get old very quickly, but does create a certain visceral immediacy. It’s in the arena bouts that Ridley really comes into his own, though. They do indeed make you entertained (it probably would have taken a Verhoeven to really revel in the debasement, however), with the expertly calculated move from Maximus shunning sparring during the training to suddenly battling for his life; he and Juba turn the tables completely, leading to a Spartacus-inspired spear hurled into the gallery.


The chariot sequence obviously has a fair bit of Ben-Hur in there, and the strategic commander (“If we stay together, we survive”) leads to a surprise rout. Scott, despite my preference for the mad Dutchman, doesn’t stint on the limb lopping (he even cuts a woman warrior in half). This sequence is easily the highlight of the picture, even though the tigers follow (I can never not see the bit where a fake tiger flopping on Crowe’s back), and includes the picture’s best line as a slightly amused Commodus comments “My history’s a little hazy, Cassius, but didn’t the barbarians lose the battle of Carthage?”) It shows how long ago I’d last seen this, as I managed to credit the best line in Pompeii, where Keifer Sutherland says almost exactly the same thing about a gladiatorial upset, as original. Paul W Anderson, acting the hack? Say it ain’t so.  


The supporting cast can be relied on to do what they do well. Harris is old and wise and sad (he and Crowe got on together). Oliver Reed (he and Crowe didn’t get on together), his performance as Proximo curtailed in The Crow or Furious 7 fashion and CGI-enhanced at key moments, makes for a coarse and funny slave owner. He’s just what the picture needs (“You sold me queer camels. I want my money back”) and gives Maximus a fair helping of X-Factor advice (“I wasn’t the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me”). 


Jacobi’s a past master at playing Romans, so looks like he’s merely been exhumed after two millennia of idling. Connie Nielsen is (as always, it seems) excellent in an underwritten and reactive role. A very youthful looking Tommy Flanagan (Sons of Anarchy) is the loyal Cicero. David Hemmings gives good eyebrows.


The problem with Gladiator is that it’s merely good when it could have been great. This isn’t the modern day Ben-Hur, even if it has been proclaimed as such. It’s a greatest hits package of Roman epics with modern technical flair, when it should have been its own thing entirely. Ridley was now in the frame for providing the same kind of prefab sheen to any material to which he attached himself  (invariably with a solid but underwhelming Hans Zimmer score). He knew to tell Crowe not to try an Antonio Banderas accent, but being actually inspired was now beyond him. This was the point where he decided to stop spending years trying to get projects made and leapt from picture to picture. In one sense it’s an admirable repositioning, approaching your mid-60s (and, now approaching 80, he’s maintained his regimen), but are the results fruitful? He hasn’t quite made a terrible film since, but the majority have been mediocrities albeit with unfailing technical flair.


Perhaps The Martian will change all that. Perhaps he should have directed Nick Cave’s screenplay for Gladiator 2: Christ Killer. I don’t really think he should, of course (Maximus travels to the afterlife, is reincarnated, sent to kill Jesus and the Christians and meets his nipper, who he kills, and is then condemned then to forever gladiate through the centuries). But at least it wouldn’t have been as pedestrian as most of his script choices. It might even have ended up as likeably mad as The Counselor.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

They seem to be attracted to your increasing nudeness.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was put in mind of Shazam! watching Pokémon Detective Pikachu, another 2019 tentpole that somewhat underperformed based on expectations. Not particularly due to any plot resemblance, but because both movies fall apart under the weight of an overblown and underwhelming finale. In the case of Shazam! that may be more damaging to its prospective sequels (if they keep the team of super-adult kids), whereas Detective Pikachu will simply have to struggle with a whole heap of unnecessary expositional baggage attempting to imbue the proceedings with emotional resonance.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…