There is a killing late in Gladiator, Ridley Scott's new heroic epic, and it is one of those wonderfully cathartic extinguishings that make a wide-eyed audience rise and cheer. After several brutal battles, after much bloodshed, after considerable suffering both needless and entertaining, a blade finds its mark and a mortal conflict finds its resolution. We've been herded across much of Western Europe by this point, through Germanic mud, Spanish fields and Italian dust, and we've been shown many men falling in combat, all in an attempt to build us up for the kicker. The problem is, not a single surprise awaits us along the hard road to the movie's perversely obvious wrap-up. We have been sharing an extravaganza of grand design, superb acting, deft direction and terrific sound and scoring (courtesy of ultrahip Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance), but the entire course of the movie has been apparent from the opening minutes. Thus the soul of Gladiator is made sluggish by a maddening lack of suspense.
"Strength and honor," intones Maximus (Russell Crowe), a powerful general in the Roman army, chanting his mantra and establishing the theme for the entire story. Observed by the wizened emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), Maximus leads his men on a massive strike against the annoyed barbarians of Germania, essentially one more stop on the world tour of Roman conquest. It's a pitch-perfect scenario: the bleak winter forest (actually shot in England), the scores of warriors, the manic horses, the firestorm of flaming arrows, the snow so ethereal it seems to fall upward. It is here that we observe Maximus' incredible charisma and vision. "At my signal," he calmly commands his men, "unleash hell." The men do, but, unfortunately, so does the editor, chopping up the film with such diabolical randomness (dropped frames, comical fast motion, nonsensical cuts) that we emerge less consumed than confused.
Undaunted by the wholesale gutting of this would-be spectacular sequence, the war-weary Maximus reports to his caesar. Marcus Aurelius is old and ready to pass on his mantle for the good of the Roman republic, having spent most of his career as emperor away from home and Rome, trashing uppity foreigners. The drama here is elegant and moving, but Harris' dialogue is best paraphrased: "So, Max, you are obviously a Reluctant Hero who's eager to return to your pastoral existence with your sultry wife and cuddly son. But here's the thing: I'm about to keel over, and I don't want my emperor status wasted on my porcelain-brained son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), because he's obviously much less reluctant than you and therefore less noble and, you know, virtuous. So, whaddya say ... want Rome?"
Maximus accepts -- reluctantly, of course -- but fate has other plans. After the inevitable bit of usurping -- a patricidal unpleasantness greeted first with horror and then with self-preserving acceptance by Commodus' sister (and Maximus' enigmatic former flame), Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) -- the flushed Commodus orders Maximus and his family killed. By turns nimble and bludgeoning, Maximus alone narrowly escapes, and away we go with a by-the-numbers retread of The Outlaw Josey Wales or Braveheart, albeit one with astonishing Roman production design (Arthur Max) and costumes (Janty Yates).
Apart from a gently breathing dead emperor and some laughably awful flocks of birds, Gladiator's look is a consistent delight to the eye, ultimately upstaging the thin storyline itself. Scott remains a genius of the lens, creating one thrilling frame after another. Although this is obvious in the frequent battle scenes and the occasional panorama of Rome, his talent is equally apparent in the intimate moments, where his mise-en-scène (a wrought-iron rook, a glowing alabaster visage) adds a sumptuousness altogether lacking in most action films. The director of Alien and Thelma & Louise may have topped himself here visually.
Nonetheless, the narrative does continue, as Maximus descends into slavery, where he encounters a buddy in Juba (Djimon Hounsou). Excellent fighters, the two are sold to Proximo (the late Oliver Reed), a rough-hewn showbiz mogul who runs a gladiator camp, where buff dudes come to, like, slay each other. As Proximo reveals that he was once a slave, released from bondage by a benevolent leader, Maximus capitalizes on the entertainment value of his battle skills, striking a deal. The new caesar is transforming Rome into a massive festival to elicit the support of the masses, so why not take the gladiators to the Coliseum? Proximo, ever the poet, concedes, "The great whore will suckle us until we are fat and happy and can suckle no more!"
Suckle, perhaps, but suck, definitely, as the script plugs along through battles, squabbling senators (Derek Jacobi, David Schofield, John Shrapnel), battles, vague attempts at incest, battles and more battles. The crux is that our valiant gladiator Maximus seeks both his personal revenge and Marcus Aurelius' desired political order at the expense of the potty-mouthed Commodus. Because a direct confrontation is ill-advised, Maximus is required to win the favor of the Coliseum mob in order to rinse Commodus' bowl free of adolescent tyranny.
Apart from a genuine chuckle culled from the term "vexation," Gladiator takes itself incredibly seriously. This is an admirable effort: Many, many people strove to render this movie important, while the province of parody languished a mere sandal-stride away (personally, I wished Graham Chapman or Mel Brooks would stride in and alleviate my impatience). Fortunately, the performers (a motley lot of incongruous accents) make the most of their predictable trajectory, and there's simply too much talent here to dismiss the movie. Reed is absolutely ideal as Proximo, sincere in his unctuous way, and, most prophetically, he ruminates upon his own demise. Crowe reveals a new turn in the wounded-thug persona he honed in L.A. Confidential, shouldering his heroic responsibilities with immense grace under pressure. Hounsou and Nielsen aren't given much to work with, but their presence itself is vital; without them, friendship and love, however fleeting and tragic, do not exist at all.
It is a great pleasure, as well, to see Jacobi and Harris on the screen again, surrounded by classical trappings. Jacobi instills his Sen. Gracchus with a passion for justice, struggling to keep Rome from becoming the lavatory Commodus would have it be. Harris, similarly, gives Marcus Aurelius immense dignity, showing him to be brilliant in territorial conquest but lousy at fatherhood, creating the foundation for this entire conflict. Between these elders juts the loose-catapult son, credibly delivered by Phoenix.
Still, however rote its paradigm, however obvious its objectives, it's nice to see massive entertainment like this on the big screen. Perhaps, if this makes some money, it may be possible to explore wider stories and more complex themes, rather than the stubborn preservation of outdated societal models that a movie such as this one endorses. Why just toss audience natives a few trinkets for their box-office dollars? Surprise and delight us! After all, as Scott himself says (in an ironic statement that seems to have slipped over the heads of the executives at DreamWorks and Universal), "Entertainment has frequently been used by leaders as a means to distract an abused citizenry." If that's not a call for real heroes to rise, what is?
Opens May 5.