Deep in the mine shafts of my brain, I keep a list of perfect movies. Deeper still, there’s a list of perfectly awful movies. Below that, under hundreds of feet of bedrock, you’ll find a list of perfectly okay movies. Burrow long enough, and you’ll find Gladiator down there. I know, tons of people love this film. It won a stockpile of awards. But I’ve watched this thing half a dozen times, and I can’t find anything particularly great about it. I also can’t find anything particularly terrible about it. The acting is, you know, pretty good. Those battle scenes are well-staged, I guess. As “classic” flicks go, Gladiator is just…kinda there.
That starts with the story. In by-the-numbers fashion, we open on Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), a celebrated general in the Roman Empire. He leads his legions against the Germanic hordes. While this lengthy slaughter delivers some cool shots (those flaming arrows!) and enduring quotes (“At my signal, unleash hell!”), it also leans heavily on choppy editing and hundreds of faceless Braveheart extras getting hacked into squishy little pieces. It may be frantic and visceral, but I also find this expansive action beat less and less exciting every time I watch it. Hey, at least we know where a fair chunk of the budget went.
Anyway, on with the familiar plot: Maximus is a de facto son to Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), Rome’s introspective, ailing Caesar. Apparently, the Empire is thirsty for a little freedom, and the emperor is keen to give them a swig. Just as the twitching corpses are carted from the battlefield, Marcus Aurelius pins Maximus as his successor, on the condition the young general eases the empire back to being a republic. Maximus can only offer a feeble shrug. He wants to be a farmer and family man.
At this point, Marcus makes a fatal mistake: He informs his doughy, dewey-eyed ding-dong of a son that Maximus is about to get the keys to the kingdom. Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) doesn’t take kindly to getting bypassed. He quietly kills the emperor and installs himself as Caesar. Naturally, Maximus refuses to bend the knee, and becomes the new ruler’s most dangerous enemy. The general manages a daring escape, but his family’s fate is sadly sealed. Thus begins a long and winding revenge tale–an aforementioned Braveheart in full centurion armor.
For reasons that pass understanding, Maximus ends up captured and exiled to the gladiator pits. Of course, Maximus has made a lifetime of perforating Huns and Visigoths, so he racks up an impressive body count. As a result, the general works his way up gladiatorial ranks, like an MLB prospect in the minors. The people are hungry for a hero, and Maximus quickly becomes a Roman sensation. As you might guess, this new fame puts him on a collision course with Commodus, and thus sweet, sweet revenge.
I just described about two hours of movie, and you’ll note Gladiator‘s 155-minute runtime. That means we get some nice fluffy padding, y’all! This takes the form of Byzantine corridor whispers between Commodus and Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), his enigmatic sister. (The dynamic between these two also lets the filmmakers indulge in some pre-GoT ickiness, as well.) We also see Derek Jacobi and Paul Schofield as a pair of scheming senators who traipse through the movie like Hydrox versions of Brutus and Cassius. And then there’s Djimon Hounsou–an Oscar nominee, no less–reduced to the thankless role of a loyal sidekick. Poor Oliver Reed also shows up as cheap, boozy comic relief, playing a salty fight promoter. (Reed died during production, so the filmmakers used CGI to give his character a rather incongruous conclusion.)
Now that we’ve covered the wasted character actors and theater icons, let’s talk about the leads. As Maximus Decimal Sourpuss, Crowe delivers a reliably sturdy performance. He scowls and bellows in all the right ways. Phoenix is also fine, playing the emperor as a peevish cotton candy-ass. Both actors are exceptionally well-cast, if only the writing didn’t let them down. Maximus is more of a walking, talking symbol than an actual character. He’s defined by his unshakable nobility, his righteous cause, and not much else. Likewise, Commodus is an odious, one-note villain. He slithers onto the screen, just so we can boo and hiss. We recently screened The Godfather for Cinemavino, and after that film’s rich complexity, Gladiator is a marked disappointment.
This review will probably sound a little more hostile than I intend. Gladiator isn’t an all-out bad film. Passable is a good way to describe it. Maybe it just irks me that a better movie lurks in plain sight here. Crowe is a commanding presence, and he plays rage better than just about any other actor–onscreen or off. He’s good, but I know he could play up to even cleverer material. (Check out Michael Mann’s The Insider to see some of Crowe’s underrated range.) Phoenix has even more potential as the petulant prince, ditto Jacobi as the honorable politician. I know a lotta people love Gladiator as is, but it only leaves me wanting even more.
155 min. R. Paramount+.