"Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?" Hey, who doesn't!?
The awe-inspiring trailers for Gladiator may have you dreaming of Spartacus and Ben-Hur, but you may be surprised to find this film in reality a less palatable mélange of Braveheart and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. This isn't altogether a bad thing, but those expecting a new Roman epic that will stand the test of time (like Spartacus and Ben-Hur) are in for some surprises.
The currently hot Russell Crowe stars as Maximus, "the general who became a slave" who begins the film as a commander so high in the echelons of the Roman army that the aging Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) hand-picks him to become the next Caesar... instead of his own son Commodus (not pronounced Commode-us, played by Joaquin Phoenix).
Joaquin Phoenix's appearance in a movie always means trouble, and sure enough, dad is soon dead, Commodus is Emperor, and Maximus is off to execution. It's a roundabout road (that lasts 150 minutes) to get from general to slave and slave to gladiator. From there, Maximus ends up in Rome at the Colosseum (you know: The Colosseum), threatening to overthrow the Emperor and return power to the Republic. And here we are, 1600 years before the American Revolution.
Gladiator's finest hour comes when the gladiating begins (though this is a good 60 minutes into the picture). And we are talking serious carnage. Bloodletting. Decapitations. People severed in two. Dirty fighting. Joey would like this movie.
Shot in an aggressive yet vaguely annoying chop-chop style, Gladiator borrows heavily from the camera style Spielberg used in Saving Private Ryan's battle scenes: Print every other frame of film twice, and run at regular speed. This casts everything in a dreamlike quality, which sometimes works in the film but gets old due to overuse and overall poor lighting.
Then there's the chit-chat of Gladiator's "plot," a threadbare bit of political intrigue, with Commodus worried sick about Maximus's rise to popularity via the mob crowds at the pit, Connie Nielsen's Lucilla (Commodus's sister), also worried sick in fear that her son will be killed... blah blah blah. I zoned out whenever one of these weepy people took the stage, waiting for the fighting to start again. You know, with the chariots! And the tigers!
There's something Jerry Springeresque about Gladiator, but Crowe lends a lot of legitimacy to the proceedings. Less effective is Phoenix, who invites you to believe he is an actual Emperor of Rome. This turns out to be impossible, as Phoenix comes across as, well, River Phoenix's little brother. There's also the little issue that Gladiator stretches the boundaries of "historical fiction" to new and impossible lengths, which almost goes without saying. Almost.
The new three-disc DVD set is exhaustive and exhausting, with a new, 17-minute-longer cut of the film anchoring the set that includes Russell Crowe's first ever commentary track. Oddly, director Ridley Scott all but disowns the cut -- saying the original theatrical cut is "the director's cut" (it's also included here). A 200-minute making-of documentary fills up one disc, and a third disc of various extras (storyboards, costume designs, more deleted scenes, and so on) round out the box set.
Let the squealing begin.