Monday, August 17, 2009

“I've seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark. Rome is the light.”

Sometimes, the stars align and an Oscar bait movie gets made that is right up my alley. 2000 was a good year, because Ridley Scott’s Gladiator came out, an epic drama about corruption, revenge and violence in the shadows of Rome in its glory. It also made out like a bandit at the Academy Awards that year.

Okay, deep breaths. I’m going to go ahead and pretend that this takes place in a bizarro Roman Empire where Marcus Aurelius did not name his son and co-ruler, Commodus, as rightful heir, instead being murdered by said son for the throne. In this fantasy world, the Emperor’s adopted successor is a general named Maximus, chosen because Aurelius wanted to re-establish the Republic and Maximus would support that (I know, it’s a crazy alternate world we’re dealing with). Commodus wants to be the big boss and when Maximus snubs him, the general is arrested, escapes execution but is sold into slavery and his family in Spain is murdered. Wishing for revenge but finding himself stuck as a gladiator, Maximus eventually makes it back to Rome where he can seek out his revenge against the emperor that took everything away from him and restore the ideals of the republic. Which, I suppose is an okay enough plot, until you consider that Commodus, while likely insane and absolutely loved killing things in the gladiatorial arena, was not a particularly cruel emperor and was fairly well-liked by the army and the lower classes and his assassination in 192 led to the extraordinarily bloody and chaotic “Year of Five Emperors” which was exactly what it sounds like. So the scriptwriters basically fail at history forever, but for movie purposes, the plot is straightforward enough to get the job done.

CharactersEmperor Marcus Aurelius: Venerable British actor Richard Harris played the last of the Five Good Emperors. Aurelius is charming, erudite and war-weary, which makes sense for an Emperor who spent most of his reign fighting a war when he would’ve rather been writing about stoic philosophy. Harris does a great job with his small role, but the lines they have him saying about restoring the Republic…well, those were just stupid because no emperor would’ve said that except for Augustus (and he would’ve been lying through his teeth).

Maximus: Russell Crowe in one of his highest-profile roles. As a general, Maximus is a stolid follower of Aurelius and a popular and successful general. His men love him, he gets victory and is a pretty likable character. Then he pisses off Commodus and his life goes to hell. As a gladiator, he’s pretty much resigned to his fate, until he finds out that his team and promoter are going to Rome for the games that Commodus will sponsor. Once there, he’s so popular with the crowd that the Emperor’s enemies (and he himself) realize that Maximus is a very real threat to Commodus. Crowe does a great job as the stoic, but revenge seeking Maximus.

Proximo: Veteran actor Oliver Reed’s last role (he died during filming and a lot of stuff had to be re-written). Proximo is introduced as a wheeling, dealing fight promoter and slaver, a former gladiator himself and one snarky bastard. He’s fantastic and gets some awesome lines, as well as becoming an ersatz mentor figure for Maximus.

Lucilla: Connie Nielsen plays Commodus’ sister and basically co-ruler. She & Maximus have an…awkward history that’s hinted at, and when she discovers the general alive and (more or less) well in the arena, she starts moving plans forward to take Commodus out of the picture. She’s a shady character who’s only real loyalty is to her young son, Lucius, and she otherwise plays the other characters off each other in a cool, detached manner. The historical Lucilla was actually involved in an assassination attempt against Commodus to put her husband (and herself) on the throne, but it failed and she was exiled, then executed by order of Commodus in 183. The movie doesn’t go into that.

Commodus: Joaquin Phoenix gives the best performance of the movie. Commodus is a crazy man who’s more than just a sociopath, and more than just a depraved hedonist. He’s nuanced, cultured, intelligent, a snappy dresser, lazy, and is always trying to prove that he’s worthy of love and adoration, with just a dash of incest to keep things fresh. He’s the Villain, but he brings so much complexity to the role that he’d be the most sympathetic character if not for the whole murder & incest thing, but even that throws him into the realm of Greek Tragedy anyway. Its most interesting that he’s expressly stated as a villain and a tyrant, but while he has lots of people arrested and killed (which is what was expected of a Roman Emperor) he doesn’t actually do anything to make him a “bad emperor” in the movie. Bad person sure, but bad ruler? According to the plot he’s bad because he opposes the senate and the “republic” but that’s modern rubbish tacked onto history. Which isn’t to say that the actual Commodus was a misunderstood hero of history. The guy really was batshit insane according to accounts, but he was sole emperor for 12 years (180-192) so it wasn’t like the people of Rome were against him from the start.

Juba: Djimon Honsou plays a Numidian slave owned by Proximo who bonds with Maximus. He really doesn’t like his current condition and doesn’t want to be a warrior, but survives in the arena thanks to skill and Maximus’ leadership. He effectively becomes Maximus’ sidekick, and someone for the general to bounce ideas off.

Hagen: German actor Ralf Moeller (who was also in Beerfest) plays the big, scary gladiator in Proximo’s troupe. He’s been a slave for a while, and knows what to do in the arena to make the people cheer. A huge badass who eventually bonds with Maximus (because of the general’s leadership in a match stacked against them), he’s pretty damn cool.

Gracchus: Derek Jacobi (who’s been in a lot of British stuff) plays a senator who’s (ugh) trying to restore the Republic. Aloof, aristocratic and “above the people” he’s still presented as a better option to Commodus.

Quintus: Thomas Arana plays Maximus’ former army subordinate, a grizzled looking soldier who makes a good team with Maximus during the preparation for battle. Quintus sides with Commodus, and has Maximus arrested (and orders his execution). Later, Quintus returns as the head of the Praetorian Guard, always at the emperor’s side during public appearances. Out of all the badasses in the film, I have to go with Quintus as the best, simply because he’s a guy who’s devoted to the Empire, a professional soldier who doesn’t let personal junk get in the way of getting shit done, and, when you get right down to it, is the guy who’s responsible for the fate of the emperor. Sure, gladiators may look fancy and flashy, but the Praetorian Guard were responsible for the removal of a huge chunk of emperors from their founding by Augustus to their dissolution by Constantine in the 300s. Rising to the top of that bunch of very scary guys is fucking badass.

Ah, finally something I can fully praise in this movie. Ridley Scott’s directing is marvelous, because quite literally he presents you with a surfeit of marvels. A SURFEIT, I say! CGI is used heavily, but mostly for filling out crowds and backgrounds so as to present the Glorious Glory of Rome. Scott also knows his way around framing, shading, colors and all of that good stuff. The film is fantastically shot, particularly the action scenes. The opening battle is great and the gladiatorial matches are full of speed and fury. Slow motion is used, but in the right places. Interestingly, there are a lot of close ups and edits, but to the filmmakers’ credit, it works in the film’s favor. You can understand exactly what is going on during the fights, with the cuts shifting focus for visual impact, not to hide bad choreography.

David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson all worked on the script at various points, and it kind of shows. There’s a disjointedness to the pacing that doesn’t stop the movie, but things slow down considerably when Lucilla starts making backroom deals with Gracchus, taking the spotlight off the Greek Tragedy between Commodus & Maximus. Sometimes the dialog is great, some lines are awesome, but most of the time its simply serviceable. However, there’s a plot hole that’s unforgivable. After Maximus escapes from his would-be killers, he is somehow able to get from Germania to Hispania (crossing all of Gallia/Gaul and the Pyrenees Mountains) with two horses (one presumably eaten along the way) and no supplies or survival equipment alone, and only misses the soldiers who killed his family & burned the estate down by maybe a day because the ruins were still smoking. Yes its dramatic, but its way too convenient and obvious that they jammed it in to give him more DRAMA to motivate him against Commodus.

The score by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard is suitable for the most part, rising to awesome during battle scenes and other moments of glory. The singing parts and some of the “synthesizer-y” bits didn’t do much for me though.

Gladiator is a fantastic movie built out of shitty history. The acting is great all around and the visual skill of Ridley Scott’s resurrection of the glory and corruption of Rome elevates the movie above the flaws of the scripting and plot.

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