Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here.
I'd just like to start by saying Knowles is a damnable cheat. I could have started my review weeks ago after seeing GLADIATOR for the first time, but I didn't. I told Dreamworks that I would wait until after the Metreon event to write something about seeing the film, and I decided to literally wait. I didn't make notes. I didn't pencil in an outline. All I did was talk to close friends about the film, sort of honing my thoughts. I was determined to wait until the moment I was actually in Microsoft SF to start the piece, but then I found out that Harry was writing his story on his laptop so he could just bring the finished review on disc with him to the store.
Damn. Guess that means I should start early, too. After all, I'm not going to be the hard-working busy bee while Harry's buzzing around meeting all of you. I had too much fun taking with the fans who came to the screening last night. It was particularly strange to meet Todd, the IRON GIANT fetishist from TALK BACK. Here's where I would normally say, "He's so much more normal than you'd expect," but he's not. Like most of us associated with the site and most of you who read it, he's a full-blown film geek, a grand and glorious freak. And he bought dinner after at a bitchin' restaurant and jazz club called The Black Cat.
But I digress.
For tke past couple of weeks now, I've been wrestling with my opinion of Ridley Scott's breathtaking new film. It's all a matter of degrees, you see. Is it better or worse than BLADE RUNNER, the film by which all other Ridley Scott films must be measured? I think the films make incredible bookends to each other, and they definitely secure Scott's place as one of the greatest visual fantasists of all time. GLADIATOR is going to do something that BLADE RUNNER never managed, though. It's going to be a mainstream phenomenon.
This is a film that is an epic in the truest and most exciting sense of the word. There’s a massive story being told here, and it takes the time needed to tell the story right. Scott and his screenwriter, David Franzoni and John Logan, weave the tale confidently from the first frame on. We start with a dream of home, images of a idyllic time and place, and when we cut to the face of the man having the dream, Maximus (Russell Crowe), it is jarring, harsh, and beautiful. The weariness on his face and the sadness of his eyes all speak volumes, and when we see him walk away from the quiet of this private moment, rejoining his troops as they mass for war against the hordes of Germania, we get a sense of exactly why that dream of home is so important. It’s the only thing that would keep a man sane under such brutal conditions.
And what of that war? Do the battle scenes live up to the hype? Well, I know you’ll be hearing comparisons to things like BRAVEHEART and SPARTACUS and BEN HUR, but forget all of that. Scott has done for this historical period what Spielberg did for WWII… he has raised the bar, set a new standard. There’s something far more impressive than the realism of the scenes, though, and that’s the emotional purity. We get a sense of what it’s like to be in battle, of how hard it is to maintain that energy, and we see the wear and tear on the men wrapped up in the fight. As the Germania battle scene wears on, it slows down, and there’s weight to it. Maximus is not some superhero, able to do anything without fatigue. He’s more of a hero because it does affect him. It does add up. He continues anyway because that is all he can do, and it becomes so much more affecting and impressive as a result. It’s the same with the gladiator scenes themselves later in thhe film. Each of them is distinct, different, and thrilling. They all have their own rhythms, and they all build to powerful climaxes. There is gore, and some of it is shocking, extreme, but none of it is done for cheap effect. Instead, Scott seems to be making a comment about what entertains us. I guarantee that shots of people being cut in half or heads being crushed or arms being hacked off will be greeted by lusty cheers at each showing of the film. They were last night. This raises the debate about what inherent entertainment value these images carry, and it’s a valid one. For me, the gore isn’t the kick, or the kills themselves. It’s the fact that Maximus keeps surviving impossible odds. It’s the primal thrill of survival itself that gives the film its greatest charge.
The performances in this film are all sterling, with Richard Harris doing some of the best work of his long career here as thhe aging Caesar, on par with his phenomenal turn as English Bob in UNFORGIVEN. Oliver Reed couldn’t have asked for a finer swan song, and he makes a strong impression as Proximo, the man who trains the fallen Maximus to be a great gladiator. Connie Nielsen is both beautiful and deeply moving as Lucilla, daughter to Marcus Aureleius and sister to Commodus, played magnificently by Joaquin Phoenix.
In fact, I’d like to make special mention of Phoenix. It has been a hard road for him as a performer, constantly living in the shadow of his brilliant brother, and despite some nice work in films like TO DIE FOR and PARENTHOOD, he’s never really clicked with a strong screen presence. Well, forget all that. He stakes a claim here as a major talent to be reckoned with, and a big part of that is how he takes a villain that could have been your typical smarmy bad guy if played by most other actors and transforms him into a complex character worthy of your sympathy as well as your hatred. He is fascinating, and there’s an early scene between him and Harris that is just awe-inspiring. It’s simply dialogue about the distance between a father and a son, but it is wrenching and real, and it sets the tone for everything after.
Of course, the main performer in the film is Russell Crowe, and the film’s success falls squarely on his shoulders. If he wasn’t the baddest motherfucker walking the earth in every single scene, then we wouldn’t believe anything else we were seeing. If we didn’t believe that he loved his wife and child with every fiber of his being, then it wouldn’t matter to us if he avenged them or not. He rises to every challenge the script throws at him, and he tosses off at least a half-dozen lines that will be absolute classics. “On my sign, unleash hell.” “I will show them something they have never seen.” “I will have my revenge, in this life or the next.” There’s such poise, such power behind each delivery, that there’s never any question… Maximus will triumph, and it will be glorious.
I love this film. I love it with every bit of geek strength I can muster. I predict that on the morning of Monday, May 8, Russell Crowe will be the biggest movie star on thie planet. I sincerely hope this is the beginning of a new winning streak for Ridley Scott. And I congratulate Dreamworks for having the guts to make this film everything it could be. This is one of those films that justifies the work we do here on the page. This is one of the greats. Get ready, everyone, because this summer, it’s all about honor and strength. The X-who? THE PERFECT what? Forget about them all. This is one GLADIATOR that will be undefeated by summer’s end.
Now that I’ve said that, I get to run out and join the event that’s already in progress. I’ll be back on routine this coming week with some great stuff coming in the RUMBLINGS. Until then…