Color me surprised when I found myself feeling rather disappointed after watching Gladiator. The trailer gave me the impression that I was going to watch an obscure story about a real-life Roman gladiator who became a martyr after opposing the sick whims of a degenerate Emperor. Instead I got yet another color-by-numbers revenge fantasy without a shred of historical context, tons of grungy cinematography, and dated CGI.
First off I'm sick and tired of screenwriters thumbing their nose at historical accuracy. If you're thinking: "C'mon, Dave, we go to the movies to be entertained, not to be educated" I'd counter with "Fuck you, talented and ambitious screenwriters can do both". There's probably a whole slew of legendary tales in the annals of history about gladiator bravery, honor and rebellion, but scribes David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson weren't content with that. Instead they banged out a bland, predictable and homogenized script likely to appease all of the mouth-breathers out there who aren't content unless they can check off every single box on their "Ahm gettin' mah monies wurth" checklist of cliches.
If you wanna write a completely fictional screenplay with no basis in reality, that's fine by me. But as soon as you start dippin' into the genre of historical drama, you need to adhere to show at least a modicum of respect for the truth. And not just for the benefit of anal-retentive assholes like me, you really have an obligation to all the morons out there who don't know any better. I shudder to think how many idiots out there think that Hitler was killed in a theater in Paris "thanks" to Inglorious Basterds. Or Robert the Bruce deliberately back-stabbed William Wallace because, well...Braveheart. Or that Americans single-handedly retrieved the German's Enigma code machine just like they did in U-571. The general public is misinformed and under-informed enough without Hollywood adding to the problem.
And so it is with Gladiator, which completely thumbs (down) it's nose at historical accuracy. Minor liberties I can deal with but the whoppers on display here would have changed the entire course of human history forever. If I had my druthers I'd make Franzoni, Logan and Nicholson write "TRUTH IS STRANGER AND OFTEN COOLER THAN FICTION" a hundred times on the blackboard until they learned their lesson. Call me crazy but I think dramatic tension is heightened when the events I'm watching actually happened to real people.
So is Gladiator a complete and total write-off? Fuck, no. The whole thing kicks off with a massive, on-screen pitched battle between a horde of barbarians and the Roman legionary, a crazy spectacle that rivals anything I've ever seen on screen before or since. Indeed, this was one of the last few times when a major studio production used a real environment populated with real extras, props, cavalry, horses and ballistae to re-create a scene of ancient warfare. Many movies that followed, like Troy for example, opted to use large swaths of cartoonish CGI instead which produced less than stellar results.
This epic scrum is followed by a series of escalating mano-a-mano gladiatorial fights. The down n' dirty Moroccan pit-battle segues nicely into an intended rout involving archers and chariots and then moves on to a bold-faced assassination attempt featuring human mountanoid Sven-Ole Thorsen and a litter of pop-o-matic tigers. Unfortunately things eventually come crashing down with a disappointing and laughably-improbable main event.
Even though the battles are well-executed I really wish that director Ridley Scott had kept the camera back a little bit further from the action to really emphasize the scale of these epic tilts. This is further hampered by Pietro Scalia periodic lapses into ginsu-style editing. Having said that nothing in Gladiator is nearly as offensive as the crap on display in your average Michael Bay / Transformers-style A.D.D. visual fuck-fest.
The tremendous cast helps to make amends for the film's "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!?" desperation to impress. Even though he's about as Roman and / or Spanish as me nan, Russell Crowe is completely convincing as the fictional general Maximus Decimus Meridius. He effortlessly manages to convey the character's power of command, his aptitude in combat and his devotion as a family man. Crowe is a pretty charismatic dude, so he makes it easy to root for Maximus even if our hero is sketched out in the broadest of brushstrokes.
Joachim Phoenix strikes a pretty amazing balance as Commodus. On paper, the Emperor is completely devoid of any redeeming features; he's vindictive, petulant, childish and slimy but somehow Phoenix manages to evoke a twinge of sympathy from time to time. Connie Nielson is appropriately regal and stalwart as Lucilla, even though she's forced into needlessly icky scenes with her on-screen bro and forced to play out the incredibly lazy and seemingly obligatory script contrivance of a past dalliance with Maximus.
Then there's poor Oliver Reed who gives one of the best performances in the film. Unfortunately he died part way through principal photography and was replaced by a CGI doppelganger that looks marginally better than the film's many fake-looking establishing shots. Kinda symbolic.
And what's with all of the grungy cinematography? I just assumed that the Germania sequences were deliberately shot in a murky fashion to contrast with the inevitable introduction of Rome, or what Maximus wearily describes as the one spot of "light" in the world. But when the action moves to the Eternal City it's just as gloomy, dark and oppressive-looking as anywhere else.
Gladiator was a genuine disappointment to me. It could have been so much more but instead it took the lazy and easy way out by delivering a schlocky, cliche-ridden revenge story that we've seen a million times over. Even the mighty Colosseum, one of the later-day Wonders of the World, was digitally blown up in scale just to make it more spectacular-looking on screen. And that pretty much sums up the movie to me right there: it isn't content with the inherently-amazing truth of our own human history. It's so pathetically desperate to impress a modern audience that it's willing to blithely adapt tropes more at home in an 80's fantasy film.
Speaking of, since the ludicrous finale seemed less I, Claudius and more Conan the Barbarian, I had to do a bit of independent research.
Yes, there was a Roman Emperor named Commodus. And yes, he liked to participate in gladiatorial games from time to time. But he also liked to dress up like Hercules and was strangled to death in a bathtub.
Now that's interesting.