in Action, Dick Flicks, Drama

Dick Flick Pick

  • Stars: Russell Crowe
  • Director: Ridley Scott
  • Writers: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson

It’s formulaic, it’s shallow, it’s historically inaccurate.  And it’s far, far better than it has any right to be.  Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” is Dick Flick in its purest form, and it’s a shining example of how to do it right.

The writers themselves summed up the whole story in one line (with so many writers listed, I won’t attempt to assign credit):  “The general who became a slave.  The slave who became a gladiator.  The gladiator who defied an emperor.”  That’s it right there.  Whole story.  The end.

How can a movie about gladiators run two hours and thirty-five minutes?  There’s a solid fifty-one minutes of backstory (general to slave) before we even reach the dawn of Phase II (slave to gladiator).  After a few too many history placards in the prologue, we’re catapulted into a five-thousand-strong Roman army assault, a contentious political struggle between dictator and democracy, and a hero-brother-sister love triangle that happens to involve the imminent passing of the crown, all set to the periodic masculine chant of “Testosterone!  Testosterone!”  …Pardon, make that, “Strength and honor.”

When the blood finally stops flying, the great Roman general Maximus (currently the spokesman for Cialis) has been widowed, stripped of rank, condemned to death, rescued by slave-traders, and forced into killing men for sport.  Cue more blood spray and creative decapitations.  Plural.  The only thing keeping him alive is the faint prospect of one day confronting the Caesar again to avenge the murders of his wife and son.

The story is an oft-repeated one, be it widowed cop against crooked police force or orphaned superhero against vampire army, and the characters here don’t boast a huge degree of complexity.  Full credit to leading man Russell Crowe, though – in too many flicks, the death of the loved one is conveniently forgotten amid the rain of bullets, but the depth of Maximus’ grief resonates even in the most violent of clashes.

As Commodus, the would-be heir to the empire who is by turns petulant, formidable, unhinged, and even vulnerable, Joaquin Phoenix shows us a more complicated bad guy than most, particularly in one heart-wrenching scene with his bumblingly harsh father (Richard Harris).  Oliver Reed, Ralf Moeller, and a young Spencer Treat Williams make the most of their roles as the slave-trader, the trainer, and the next-generation Caesar, respectively.  Djimon Hounsou skillfully circumnavigates the Magical Negro trap with an understated performance as fellow slave and gladiator Juba, whose quiet interactions with Maximus give rise to some of the film’s most stirring moments and lend tremendous spiritual intensity to a high-octane premise.

As for the women:  Why have multiple female characters when you can roll them into one?  Played by Connie Nielsen, Lucilla is a brilliant example of how to wrap all your female archetypes inside one neat package.  She’s the widow, the mother, the sister, the manipulative bitch, the shoulda-been-king-but-she’s-a-woman, the love interest (of two bitter rivals, no less), and the soon-to-be incest AND rape victim.  Seven for the price of one.  Didn’t even realize there were that many female archetypes, did you?  (Oh, wait – there’s the perfect but dead wife-with-no-name who only appears mutely in flashback.  So… two women.)

But we love a good dick flick, and this truly is one of the best.  The gladiatorial action sequences are staggering, the physical feats of Crowe and his cohorts undeniably impressive.  Rather than the endless one-to-one fights this reviewer was expecting, Scott pits men against men (and creatures, and machines) in wild and ever-evolving configurations, each one more exhilarating than the last.  Unlike most thick-necked bang-em-up fight scenes of the genre, many of the arena sequences are complex, carefully crafted, eminently logical, and even intellectually and emotionally gripping.  The film’s panache is magnified by stunning sets, magnificent costuming by Oscar-winner Janty Yates, and a haunting score by co-composers Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard (only one of whom was nominated for an Oscar, by the way).  And there are a few sly tongue-in-cheek references imbedded within all that Latin.

No offense to the enormous talent behind it, but why this flashy movie won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor is mind-boggling.  It ran in a crowd of far more layered and substantive films.  But the combination of adrenaline, well-timed dialogue, solid acting, and an extra dash of pomp delivers a thrillingly emotional impact, if only on a fairly surface-y level.

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