Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

This Roman Empire video game porn is not the worst film to achieve its Oscar success — fucking dreadful though it is — but one of the most amusing; did anyone, filmmakers included, really think of this as a full-dimensional character drama, as anything except popcorn? All of Ridley Scott’s movies occur in the same world of thin characters saying what they mean with their inner worlds clearly marked; it’s a wonder we escape the theater without being treated to a daydream about a unicorn, probably to indicate “freedom.” But divorced from the director’s occasional hamfisted longings for arthouse credibility, Gladiator can only even try to offer pure escapist entertainment. It fails in this regard, more so than ever now that its visual coldness and goofy performances look so dated, but it aims so low it’s kind of a wonder that we’re even required to consider it outside the usual context for a Hollywood action picture. What gave this undue prestige, the historical setting? What a crock, whatever the case.

Scott is widely regarded as one of the most visionary of mainstream directors; he retains a larger hip cachet with cinephiles than Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, but he can’t even claim the subtlety of those men whose films hardly tend toward ambiguity. He’s met no symbolism that was too unimaginative and obvious to use, and though he doesn’t directly participate in scripting his films, his tin ear for dialogue still hurts — especially here — because he can’t coax competence out of actors wandering through his mazes of usually quite passable production design. (Scott openly fancies himself a master of composition; I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I guess his are not the ugliest movies I’ve seen, a moot point when his actual sense of drama and pacing are so poor.)

In Gladiator specifically, he reins in some of the broader pretensions that so awkwardly stunt the outsized ambitions of films like Blade Runner, but it’s as if his stab at think-big macho action cinema is designed to be meaingful by virtue simply of his name. And you’re equally fucked through the entirety of this mess if you hate the style of cinema he’s experimenting with anyway. Frankly, I am still mystified by the movie’s success. Inadequately and confusingly staged, poorly directed overall, visually artless, awkwardly paced, and tragically anemic, it recasts Spartacus as a lowest-tier afterschool special, presenting one pale retread of a scene from Kubrick’s great epic after another while a woman moans dramatically in a foreign tongue on the soundtrack (a cliché that has become so inescapable I may vomit the next time I hear it).

Okay, okay. There’s a bit of Ben-Hur too. Much praise was offered at the time of the film’s release to Russell Crowe in the title role of a general-turned-slave-turned-gladiator-turned-Braveheart. I don’t fully comprehend the appeal of his performance; he exercises few acting chops besides his share of grunts and whines most of the time and is never particularly effective or believable. He’s also forced to bellow out lines like “I AM TIRED FROM BATTLE.” He’s a Great Man, though, and he has a Great Name, but he hasn’t even the personality of a character in one of the classic-era Hollywood epics aforementioned; scale and chest are all. In fact, Joaquin Phoenix makes his incestuous, obsessive, daddy-loving character far more compelling, which is alarming since he’s one of the most panderingly written and stereotyped one-dimensional “evil” movie villains I can remember. Phoenix has a gazillion times more presence than Crowe; his character is offensively annoying and poorly constructed but you still wish the story (such as it is) was about him instead of wheezing muscular Russell.

What invariably gripes me most with “big” movies of our current century when I cross paths with them is the way they pander, in this case with the clearly marked rhythms of triumph and sorrow and romance and darkness and, of course, plenty of bloody and disgusting Braveheart violence to up the movie’s kill count, which is really all that matters innit. (Of course, I’m not really in this movie’s audience anyway — but fuck you, it’s my blog.) I realize that the line on something like this is that it’s just “fun,” that we should sit back and let it manipulate us, but I don’t find this fun at all, and I don’t get pleasure from formula, and moreover I have a hard time believing that adhering to formula is ever an admirable goal, or a recipe for anything but precisely the sort of faux-populist boneheadedness Scott brings us here. All of Scott’s films (that I have seen) are too naked in their emotional intentions, too absent of ambiguity, but the beats and story points of Gladiator are so clearly marked it’s a waste of time to bother watching it; you’ve seen it when you’ve seen its trailer.

But again, that’s Ridley Scott. Like Alien and Blade Runner before it, Gladiator is presented in a sort of paint-by-numbers filmmaking format. Any of us could “come up” with this story and write this dialogue in our sleep; this director seems to believe that simply by filming these basic impulses he is doing something, as if the great fact of the picture was in the very act of Ridley Scott making a Roman epic, not in anything to do with the characters or story itself. The most entertaining facet of the production was surely the on-set reports of the entertainment rags. Scott has publicly lamented what he sees as a homogenization of Hollywood movies; how does this silly, artificial, obvious, blankly inexpressive junk help?

[Most of this was originally posted elsewhere in 2007.]

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