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Bloody, Yet Bloodless

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2000


    'Gladiator' Russell Crowe (left) stars in "Gladiator."
(DreamWorks and Universal)
Friends, Washingtonians, countrymen, I come not to praise "Gladiator" but to bury it.

Thumbs down! Drive that short sword through its palpitating heart, and pay no attention to its squeals for mercy. It is an honorable movie, so are they all honorable movies. But that's not enough. It's not great. It's a disappointment. Caesar hates disappointment, so kill it swiftly and be done.

The first big Rome movie since 1964, the film is handsome, dynamic, boldly conceived, boldly acted, thrilling--but finally flat. It runs out of steam. Just when it should be heating up, it's cooling off. Also: Its sword fights look like they're set on fast-forward. They go like this: Pffffft-ziiiiiiiip! and they're over. If you're going to clang the anvil chorus with life and death hanging in the balance, you've really got to deliver.

The movie--at least on screen--is huge in scale, as envisioned by the great pictorialist Ridley Scott. His Rome is New York and Washington combined, a great, debauched megalopolis of heroic architecture and unheroic opportunists.

Of course, it doesn't really exist: It's by the magic of computer morphing that this urban hive of marble and flesh comes to seem real. And it's by the same magic that the camera can follow Russell Crowe's mad Maximus into the arena, executing a full 360 to yield a perspective on mezzanine after mezzanine reaching up to the sky boxes, all jammed with blood-lusting adrenaline freaks who want to see a game that ends Tigers 10, Humans 0. It's a FedEx Field where the linebackers don't take prisoners.

The movie is a kind of meltdown of plot fragments from the two greatest Roman films from Hollywood's Grandest Age, "Ben-Hur" (1959) and "Spartacus" (1960). It's about a fallen and betrayed high-born lord seeking revenge, and it's about a gladiator revolt.

Crowe, hulking and dynamic, an Arnold Schwarzenegger without being a joke, is Maximus, the Spanish-born Roman general. Question: How could he have an Australian accent 1,800 years before Australia was discovered? Answer: There isn't one.

A legend to his men for his courage and his exquisite close-quarter battle skills, he is after 12 warring years about to crush the last of the empire's enemies. You can see them in the brush line, a vast fleet of pesky Germaniacs (beards, clubs, weisswurst breath) who look like the entire National Football League after the mother of all overtimes. The movie opens in A.D. 180 with this fight, and it's a lulu.

In snow and mud in some Godforsaken Bavarian forest, the two armies clash with weapons that cleave, chop, tear and pierce. Scott is clearly lit up by this battle, which rivals the famous fight in the rain in "The Seven Samurai" or the first 20 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan." It becomes a great seething sea of beheadings, impalings, crushings and stabbings, under a sleet of flaming arrows and whirling snowflakes. As we say in the Midwest: Wow, cool!

Then it is done. The empire is finally won, and its philosopher king, the Caesar named Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris in best late-Arthurian splendor), feels he has brought civilization to the known world. His next task is to restore democracy to an imperial city consumed with, much like our own, fratricidal politics. He knows he can entrust that task to only one man, the reluctant Maximus, whom he plans to name as his successor.

But before Marcus can act, his thwarted son Commodus--played by Joaquin Phoenix in a hissy snit of ambition, venality, perversity and craven yearning, all in the best tradition of Roman imperial pathology--murders him to take the crown for himself. Then, realizing that Maximus is a potential enemy, he orders the hero assassinated, has his family crucified, and returns to Rome to destroy democracy forever and appease the public on a diet of bread and circuses while muttering dirty possibilities to his beautiful sister (Connie Nielsen, whoever she is).

Max survives the assassination try, which leaves six or seven bodies in the dust, though he acquires the first of several near-fatal wounds. When he gets home, he finds the family murdered, passes out and wakes up a captive to Moorish slavers. They promptly sell him to Hugh Griffith; no, I mean Peter Ustinov--oops, no, wrong movies. They sell him to Proximo (Oliver Reed), the Vince McMahon of road show gladiatorial smackdowns.

Proximo sends him to the ring to kill or die for the amusement of the mob. There, Maximus's nihilism, his talent and his rage propel him toward stardom. He kills them all, the long and the short and the tall. Finally the roadshow heads to the Big Town, to Commodus's corrupt and licentious Rome.

If I'd had to review the movie at this point, I'd have called it fabulous: barbaric, splendid, violent, incredibly exciting, full of passions in primal colors, driven forward on every bad boy's secret best friend, a longing for revenge.

Then the movie just goes under.

The big mistake, I think, is that Maximus, after one or two victories, confronts Commodus and reveals who he is. This is the movie's emotional core, this striking revelation, this moment of quivering rage where the unjustly ruined general steps from the shadows to confront the evil that ruined him. Cry vengeance and let slip the dogs of havoc. Scott just throws it away, and you feel the tension drain out onto the floor.

There's still an hour of movie left! What follows is a dreary account of plot and counterplot as Commodus's enemies (mainly liberal gay senator Derek Jacobi, who was the title character in the much richer "I, Claudius") try to usurp the monster, and the monster tries to usurp the usurpers, bed his sister and molest her child while a flurry of lesser characters scurry between them while trying not to bump into the computer-generated furniture.

The central problem is that Maximus can't be both a gladiator and a player in imperial politics. Imagine a Redskins quarterback who was also a leading figure in the impeachment hearings. You can't. It just doesn't work; it splits the focus. The movie somehow is hamstrung by this perplexing development and seems to dissipate into a very Washington kind of tedium: nothing but meetings. They're even caucusing in the gladiators' dressing room.

And finally, as such movies must, this one comes down to a sword fight. While the battles have been progressively less persuasive, this last one, which should be a corker, is banal and unimpressive.

I wanted a fight like the one between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone at the end of "The Adventures of Robin Hood" or between Charlton Heston and his lady's champion in "El Cid." I wanted something that approximates the emotional splendor of the fury and spectacle on the chariot course between Ben-Hur and Messala. That's what these movies are about; that's the obligation of the genre.

Scott just isn't up to it. The final thrust-off is unimpressive, to say the least, and the opponents seem preposterously mismatched. There's no rhythm in the cutting, either of opponent upon opponent or of editor upon film; nothing builds. Most amateur theater groups do the thing between Hamlet and Laertes much better.

The movie, which is about imperial grandeur and vanity, ends up looking like a Muppets version of Peter Pan vs. Captain Hook. What's good about the film has by then been long interred with its bones.

Gladiator (154 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for battle damage to human beings, horses and other living creatures.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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