Review: “Gladiator”

Massive statues and buildings, thousands of extras and a 154 minute running time, “Gladiator” is an epic in every sense of the word. Be warned though if you go in expecting a Ridely Scott masterpiece along the lines of “Alien” you’ll be disappointed. What you will find though is what is one of the best blockbusters in years and certainly a more intelligent action movie than most.

Crowe seems born to play this kind of role – the rogue hero who is thrown to the ground and climbs his way back up to seek his vengeance. Maximus is a man of few words, rather letting his pensive stares and hardened fists do the talking, but underneath lies a good heart – a perfect larger than life hero. Phoenix also does very well as the evil Commodus who is a deeper and more complex villain than one might expect. There’s a great scene where Maximus, spurred on by the crowd, confronts Commodus for the first time in years and the Emperor trembles in shock – a very effective scene showing how insecure his character is.

The Saffron Burrows-lookalike Connie Nielsen does a star-turning performance as Commodus’ sister whom is having an implied incestuous relationship with her brother (it was Rome after all), but truly has Maximus’ heart. Derek Jacobi makes a great cameo as Roman senator Gracchus, and even manages to squeeze in a humourous in-joke to his work on “I, Claudius”. Honshou on the other hand gets about two lines of dialogue, while Oliver Reed is also only in a small part.

The production values are exquisite. From the thousands of costumes, the lavish sets, and the FX-enhanced scenery, Scott has always shined in his attention to detail and ability to create great atmosphere. The first 40 minutes of the film are set in the cold & muddy German highland woods with a “Braveheart” style battle that has some astonishing pyrotechnic effects and plenty of gore.

After that comes a 20-30 minute segment in a Roman province in North Africa which is effective, and stands next to an old city ruin which is either a real place or a completely flawless computer effect. Then comes the jewel in the crown – Rome, though here is where the FX sometimes get a bit patchy. Most of them involve computer enhanced settings and while some are spectacular (eg. Maximus entering the arena), others such as Commodus horse ride into the city look very washed out (ie. everything looks like a monotoned grey). The gore is spectacular with no-holds-barred maiming and carnage including one way cool death scene where a blade attached to a chariot wheel chops a guy right in half.

On the downside the few minor problems there are all tie back to one thing – the script. The writers have crafted an interesting story with some good sub-plots, but the dialogue is quite banal and ordinary at times. The main problem though is with the layout of the action – it’s much like “Saving Private Ryan” with an intense opening sequence and a non-stop last hour, but there’s about 90-minutes of basically just pure talking in between where the pace really begins to drag until Maximus finally gets into a Gladiatorial battle.

Character development is needed, but there are scenes which just seem to repeat themselves while other sub-plots (eg. the Senate’s control) are brought up but hardly explored. If another writer had been brought in to polish and tighten these scenes and make the dialogue snappier, you could’ve fit just as much development into 60 minutes thus making the pace faster and reducing the running time to a less bladder-busting length.

The epic movie seems to be back in a big way with this leading the forefront, but the real question now is can its main competitor “The Patriot” be as good? We’ll soon see. In any case this is certainly Scott’s best work since “Blade Runner”, not to mention will cement Crowe as another major action star along Nic Cage lines if he wants to chose that route. Definitely a movie worth not only seeing, but seeing on the big screen.