In 1976, I stood in the middle of Rome's Coliseum. It was July, I was 13 and I thought I was dying.
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The sun bore down on me like God had a magnifying glass and He was passing the time by frying us ants down below. The local guide stood in front of my educational tour group and said, "If you listen very carefully, you can hear the roar of the ancient Roman crowds and the death cries of the gladiators dueling to the finish. They fought where you are now standing."
I could hear nothing but the great beads of sweat falling from my nose and splashing to the dirt below. The only roar was the blood pounding in my overheated head.
I tried to imagine the gladiators skewering each other with their swords, but I couldn't. All I could picture were the interiors of refrigerators, desk fans on full bore and icebergs floating on my tongue. To hell with gladiators, I just wanted a 7-11 Slurpee.
So, when I saw the first official summer blockbuster this past weekend, I was well-prepared for the sweat, blood and tears that once oozed from ancient Roman pores. What I wasn't prepared for was a Coliseum that wasn't half-crumbled like a broken pie-crust. The huge amphitheater has been rebuilt and scrubbed to the kind of architectural glisten normally reserved for New York's skyscraper district. Ladies and gentlemen, Gladiator is Rome in its most glorious hour.
Too bad it's not the movie industry's finest hour.
Apart from Animal House ("Toga! Toga! Toga!"), it's been decades since ancient Rome sprawled across our theater screens in such epic proportions. Those who revel in the memory of the spectacular worlds of Ben-Hur, Spartacus or Quo Vadis? will find this gargantuan movie from director Ridley Scott as comfortable as a pair of sandals.
Other viewers--those who get restless at the sound of dialogue that groans beneath the weight of long convoluted sentences--are better off staying at home and watching something less cerebral on television. "WWF" or "American Gladiators," for instance.
There's no denying that Gladiator will wrench viewers' guts (if nothing else out of reflex from all the swords piercing guts up on the screen). It's gripping entertainment brought to us by a director who knows a thing or two about white knuckles (Scott also helmed Alien, Blade Runner and the forthcoming Hannibal).
If only our pulse from all the action scenes wasn't slowed to a near standstill by long stretches of expository dialogue. Actors spit out such clunkers as "What we do in life echoes in eternity" like they were trying to get a bad taste off their tongue.
Gladiator, however, smartly begins with a Big Battle Scene that immediately sets the pulse galloping like a wild-maned horse. It's 180 A.D. and the Roman army, under the direction of General Maximus (Russell Crowe), is in the midst of invading Germania. Rome, spreading its glorious empire like a computer virus, is unstoppable and insatiable. Besides, they've got those cool catapults with flaming ammunition that sets forests ablaze with a single whoosh. The European foot soldiers don't even have the whisper of a chance.
The battle is an eye-popping, dry-mouthed, budget-busting showpiece. Unfortunately, it also muddies the on-screen battlefield with an annoying high-contrast, rapid-motion effect that makes the action appear to stutter. There's plenty of style, but little sense. Mud, blood, human limbs and horse hooves fly in front of the camera in such a tangled mess that we're never sure who's killing who--though there's little doubt that those Romans will come out on top.
The opening battle is over in a flash and then we're subjected to a half-hour of dull, expository dialogue which establishes several key plot points (spoiler warning):
1. Emperor Marcus Aurelius' (Richard Harris) dissatisfaction with the spoils of war and his desire to make the empire a true republic.
2. His love and trust of Maximus.
3. His betrayal and death at the hands of his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who wants to seize the throne all for himself.
4. Commodus' paranoid hatred of Maximus, which leads to his order to have the loyal general executed (along with the rest of his family back home in Spain).
Then--BAM!--we're roused from our light slumber by more action scenes: Maximus' escape from his executioner, his discovery of his slain family, his vow to seek revenge on Commodus and his eventual capture by Proximo, a slave trader (Oliver Reed, who died during filming but gives one of the best performances of his career here). Proximo trains his slaves to be gladiators in a sort of touring circus, but really they're just "gladiator bait" for the better-trained, better-fed and better-armed competition who enter the ring for the to-the-death duels.
Until Maximus comes along, that is. Using his military leadership skills, he gets the rabble roused, whipping his fellow gladiators into the fervor of rebellion ("Ultimately, we're all dead men," he says with clunky aplomb). At the same time, his beheading skills in the arena are whipping the spectators into a fever-pitch bloodthirst. Eventually, the gladiator troupe makes its way to Rome and the computer-generated Coliseum with 50,000 pixellated Romans where--surprise!--Maximus crosses swords with his old nemesis, Commodus.
Gladiator is a crowd-pleaser that, creaky dialogue aside, has many things going for it. First of all, the score by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard is some of the most thrilling music to pour in full Dolby glory from theater speakers in a long time. If the movie doesn't stir your breast, Zimmer's pounding drums and blaring trumpets certainly will.
Then there's Crowe, looming large as a great action-movie hero in a role originally offered to fellow Aussie Mel Gibson (who reportedly replied, "No thanks, I'm too old."). Crowe, who gave one of the most intense internal performances of 1999 in The Insider, throws all of his muscle into physical intensity here. He joins hunks like Harrison Ford, Gary Cooper and Gibson who make up in commanding presence what they might lack in physical stature (when compared to beefcakes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, for instance). When a tiger leaps on Crowe's back in a Coliseum battle, we pity the poor striped cat. Likewise when Crowe throws a steely-eyed glare at the simpering Phoenix.
But Gladiator ultimately works because everyone likes cheering for the little guy oppressed under the thumb of the bad guy. Thanks to the movie posters, we know that "a hero will rise." Maximus may be down, but he's not out. As in Braveheart, we cheer when the downtrodden get back on their feet and we groan when the villains seem to be getting their way.
Gladiator is no Braveheart, however. While it shares a love of full-screen spectacle with the legend of the Scot, it has none of its efficiency. The lulls between scenes of rousing action go on so long, we start checking our watches and stifling yawns. Worse, Gladiator has none of Braveheart's occasional wit (remember the pre-battle mass mooning?). With its not-ready-for-prime-time-Shakespeare dialogue, the words are dull and heavy as an armored breastplate, turning the circus maximus into circus boredomus.
In the end, Gladiator turns out to be all pompous and circumstance, sprinkled with a few good swordfights.
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