Blog Archives

Gladiator (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released May 5, 2000:

Director Ridley Scott has given the world of cinema some of its most unforgettable visual experiences. But can Scott breath new life into a genre whose heyday was when a badly dubbed Steve Reeves oiled his chest and wrestled loincloth-clad extras in the 1950s?

The year is roughly 180 AD and Rome is just finishing up its long-standing assault on anything that moves in the European continent. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) merely wants to retire back to his loving family and get away from the doom and war that has plagued his life. This is made all the more difficult when the ailing Emperor bypasses his treacherous son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and decides to crown Maximus as the Defender of Rome. Because of this Commodus rises to power through bloody circumstances and has Maximus assigned to execution and his family crucified. You’d think crucifixion would be so passé by now. Maximus escapes only to be sold into slavery and bought by a dirt-run gladiator training school. As he advances up the chain and learns the tricks of the primal sport he seeks but vengeance for his fallen family.

Gladiator is an absorbing and sweeping spectacle of carnage and first-rate entertainment. The action is swift and ruthlessly visceral. The first movie in a long time to literally have me poised on the edge of my seat. The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp.

What Gladiator doesn’t sacrifice to the muscle of effects and action is storytelling. Are you listening George Lucas? Gladiator may unleash the beast when the rousing action is loose, but this is coupled with compelling drama and complex characters. Phoenix may at first seem like a snotty brat with an unhealthy eye for his sister (Connie Nielsen), but the further Gladiator continues the more you see in his eyes the troubled youth who just wants the love of his father that was never bestowed to him. Maximus is a devoted family man who regularly kisses clay statues of his family while away, and must ceremoniously dust himself with the earth before any battle.

The acting matches every sword blow and chariot race toe-for-toe. Russell Crowe marks a first-rate staple of heroism. Every calculating glare he exhibits shows the compassion and ferocity of this warrior. He becomes a rare breed – an action hero who can think and actually act. Oliver Reed, in what sadly was his last role, turns in a splendid and charismatic turn as the head of the gladiator school of Fine Arts and Carnage. Mysteriously everyone carries a British accent closer to them then a toga two sizes too small. Even Crowe who is nicknamed “The Spaniard” speaks like he walked out of Masterpiece Theater.

The effects and visuals are a sumptuous feast. The aerial shots of Rome and the Coliseum are simply breath taking. Gladiator rivals American Beauty for the most rose petals used in a movie, except in this one they don’t shoot out of Mena Suvari’s breasts.

Ridley Scott’s track record may be hit or miss but Gladiator is definitely one sorely not to be missed.

Nate’s Grade: A-

——————————————————

WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

As Russell Crowe famously barked, “Are you not entertained?’ It was hard to argue in 2000 and it still holds true to this day. Gladiator was a big-budget throwback to the swords-and-sandals epics of old Hollywood. It was a box-office hit, made Crowe a star, and won five Academy Awards including Best Picture. My own elderly grandmother loved it so much that she saw it three times in a theater that summer, which was practically unheard of in her later years (she also, inexplicably, loved the 1999 Mummy movie). It was a millennial DVD staple. I can recall everyone on my freshman dorm hall owning it and hearing it on regular rotation. As studio projects were getting bigger with more reliance on CGI, Gladiator felt like a refreshing reminder on how powerful old stories can be with some modern-day polish. Re-watching Gladiator twenty years later, it still resonates thanks to its tried-and-true formula of underdog vengeance.

We all love a good story where we follow a wronged party seek to right those wrongs, plus we all love a good underdog tale, and given the pomp and circumstance of the gladiatorial arena, it’s easy to see how this movie was engineered to be a success from the page. This isn’t a particularly new story. Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus mined the same territory with an even bigger scope, both in politics and in war, and there have been many movies covering the same history around the rise of Commodus, like 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and The Two Gladiators. We’ve seen this kind of story before even in this setting but that doesn’t matter. The familiarity with a story isn’t a hindrance if the filmmakers take their story seriously and make an audience care about its characters. It all comes down to execution. As long as the filmmakers don’t get complacent and take that formula familiarity for granted, old stories can have the same power they had for decades because, deep down, cooked in their structure, they just work.

Gladiator gives us everything we need to know by the conclusion of its first act, introducing us to Maximus, showing his leadership and loyalty, giving us the strained father-son relationship with Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, the expectations of the son of his ascendancy, the regrets of the father and hope for a return to a Republic, the reluctance of Maximus to be more than a general of Rome, and finally after the murder of the old emperor, a decisive choice for Maximus that challenges his morals and responsibility. From there, screenwriters David Franzoni (Amistad), John Logan (The Aviator), and William Nicholson (Les Miserables) put our hero and villain on parallel tracks heading for a collision. Maximus rises through the ranks of gladiators and builds a name for himself, getting called to the major leagues of bloodsport, and Commodus schemes to have his old enemy killed with increasingly dangerous trials in the Coliseum. It’s a natural progression and escalation, which makes the storytelling satisfying as it carries on. Gladiator never had a finished script when they began filming, which has become more common with big budget tentpoles with daunting release dates and rarely does this work out well. However, this is the exception (the screenplay was even nominated for an Oscar). It should be stated that the events of Gladiator pay very little to the actual history but fidelity is not necessary to telling a compelling story (the real-life Commodus rose to power after dear old dad died from plague). Use what you need, I say.

Ridley Scott was on an artistic hot streak during the start of the twenty-first century, directing three movies within one and a half years of release and earning two Oscar nominations. He wanted to veer Gladiator away from anything too cheesy of older swords-and-sandals epics, as reported. This isn’t about homoerotic wrestling with men in unitards (in Jerry Seinfeld voice: not that there’s anything wrong with that) and instead about the grit and superficial glory of Rome. The opening battle in Germania is meant to show Maximus in action but it also shows just how overpowering the Roman Empire was during this time period. They just massacre the remaining German tribe, and there’s a reason we don’t focus on battle strategy and instead on the chaos. The conclusion of the battle is a shaky camera mess of bodies and flames and dark shapes. It’s a bloody mess and not something to be glorified. Maximus is tired. His men are tired. Even Marcus Aurelius is tired of his decade-long conquering of a map, adding little inches to an already gargantuan territory. When is it all enough? When is war a self-perpetuating quagmire?

This same dismissive view over conquest and glory carries throughout. When Maximus becomes a slave, he must play the blood-thirsty appetites of the crowd to reach his goals. He disdains the theater of combat, the delaying of strikes simply to draw out the drama of two men fighting to the death. Later, these same venal interests of the mob form a protection for Maximus. He’s too popular to just be assassinated because the Roman people just love watching how he slays opponents. There’s an implicit condemnation of popular entertainment built around the suffering of others. Scott has a purpose for his depictions of violence, and you could even make the argument he is drawing parallels between the bloodthirsty crowds of the Coliseum and modern-day moviegoers screaming for violence. What are the human costs for this entertainment? It’s not explicitly stated, and some might even say this level of commentary for a movie awash in bloodshed makes any such condemnation hollow or hypocritical. Maybe. The violence feels like it has weight even when it can border on feeling like a video game stage with enemies to clear.

Crowe (The Nice Guys) was already making a name for himself as a rugged character actor in movies like L.A. Confidential and The Insider, but it was Gladiator that made him a Hollywood leading man, a title that he always seems to have felt uncomfortable with. Crowe wasn’t the first choice of Scott and the filmmakers (Mel Gibson turned Maximus down saying he was too old), but it’s hard to imagine another person in the role now. Crowe has a commanding presence in the film, an immediate magnetism, that you understand why men would follow him into hell. That flinty intensity plays into the action movie strengths, but there’s also a reflective side to the man, a sense of humor that can be surprising and rewarding. There’s more to Maximus than avenging his wife and child, and Crowe brings shades of complexity to an instantly iconic role. He finds the tired soul of Maximus when he could have simply been a kickass killing machine. Between Crowe’s three Best Actor nominations in a row from 1999-2001, I think he won for the wrong performance. It’s a shame Crowe hasn’t been nominated since, which seems downright absurd. People have forgotten what an amazing actor Crowe can be, singing voice notwithstanding (I need a sequel to Master and Commander please and thank you).

This was also a breakout role for Joaquin Phoenix (Her), who has risen to become one of the most celebrated and chameleon-like actors of his generation. The character of Commodus is your classic example of an entitled child who doesn’t understand why people don’t like him. He’s a sniveling villain prone to temper tantrums (“I am vexed. I am very vexed”). Much like his co-star, Phoenix finds layers to the character rather than resting on a stock villain characterization. He’s really the jealous son who envies the preference and love given to Maximus, first from his father, then from his widowed sister (Connie Nielsen), and then from the Roman people. He whines that they love Maximus in a way he will never deserve. It’s hard not to even see a Trumpian psychology to Commodus, a man not equipped for the position of power he occupies who longs for adulation he hasn’t earned. You can hate the man, but you might also feel sorry for him despite yourself. When he wants to be pompous, he can be hilarious (I adored his quick reaction shots to the theatrical combat). When he wants to be creepy, he can be terrifying. You can even see some of the broken pieces here that Phoenix would masterfully use to compose his Oscar-winning Joker performance.

The supporting cast was gifted with great old actors getting one last victory lap. Richard Harris was so stately and grandfatherly that it got him the role of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise. It also served as a great sendoff for Oliver Reed (Oliver!) as Proximo, the selfish, trash-talking former gladiator turned gladiator trainer. Reed died months into the production and before he had wrapped his part, requiring extensive reworking from the screenwriters (Logan was on set for much of the production to cater to the immediate day-to-day story needs). Scott used a body double and parlayed visual effects to recreate Reed’s face, much like what 1994’s The Crow was forced to do after the unfortunate death of its star, Brandon Lee. I kept looking for what moments would be Reed and what moments would be the CGI-enabled Reed double, and it was harder to determine than I thought, so nice job visual effects team. Reed had a reputation of being a carousing reprobate, so having a final performance that allowed him to tap into those old impulses plus the regrets of older age was a wonderful final match.

The other big takeaway upon my twenty-year re-watch was how recognizable and stirring Hans Zimmer’s famous score was, which lost the Oscar that year to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and that seems insane to me. Zimmer has been in a class all his own since the 90s with classic, instantly hum-able scores for True Romance, The Lion King, The Dark Knight, Inception, and The Pirates of the Caribbean, which borrows heavily from his theme for Gladiator. The score greatly adds to the excitement and majesty of the movie and can prove transporting by itself.

A truly bizarre post-script is the story of how the studio tried to develop a sequel. Gladiator was hugely successful but any sequel presented problems. Given the death of its star, following another character makes the most sense, and yet that’s not the direction the screenplay took. Eventually, the sequel to Gladiator was going to follow the ghost of Maximus as it travels through time including to modern-day. Just take a moment and dream of what could have been. Alas, we’ll likely never get time-traveling ghost Maximus now and we simply don’t deserve it as a society.

Reviewing my original film critique from 2000, I feel that my 18-year-old self was more entranced with making snappy, pithy blurbs than going into further detail on my analysis. My early reviews were far more declarative, saying something was good or bad and giving some detail but not dwelling on going deeper into the examination. This line, “The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp,” makes me cringe a little because it’s just trying too hard to be casually clever. I do enjoy the Mena Suvari rose petal joke. Still, I celebrated that a studio movie could emphasize its story first and foremost and my observations are still valid. I’m all but certain the only reason I knew who Steve Reeves was back then was because of his many appearances via Mystery Science Theater 3000 covering his cheesy swords-and-sandals films of old that Ridley Scott was so eager to avoid recreating (“Do you like films about gladiators?”)

Because the movie does so much so well, with some exceptional, it’s hard for me to rate Gladiator any lower than my initial grade of an A-, so that’s where I’m keeping it twenty years later. I think the national conversation has cooled on Gladiator, forgotten it because it wasn’t quite as audacious as other examples of early 2000s films, but it sets out to tell a familiar story on a big canvas and deserves its plaudits for somehow pulling it all off with style and gravity. It would be flippant to say Gladiator still slays the competition but it’s still mighty entertaining.

Re-View Grade: A-

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

So is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets better than the first film? Well, mostly yes. The story of Harry Potter is a long and complicated one, full of numerous funny names as well. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is still living with his abusive relatives and barred in his room. He’s warned by Doddy, a self-abusive CGI house elf, not to return to Hogwart’s School of Magic because he will be in grave danger. Fat lot of luck this does. Before you can say Jar Jar Binks, Harry’’s timid friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and his flying love bug rescue Harry. They meet up with old friend Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and begin their second year of magical education. But danger surfaces as students with Muggle (a non-magically inclined family member) blood are turning into petrified statues. Lots of other stuff is crammed in (like broomstick rugby, Nancy Drew-like detection, and spiders oh my!) but let’s all be honest here, it’s not like a plot synopsis is going to push you into seeing this movie.

Much of the acting responsibilities falls on the shoulders of our three young leads, and all I can say is what a world of good puberty has done them all. Radcliffe, stiff and overly subdued in the first film, has grown a deeper voice. He seems to have settled into the part nicely. Grint, playing a noble coward, goes from squeal to grimace in 3.5 seconds. Watson has a winning smile and bounces with enthusiasm but sadly sits the last half of the film out.

Some notable additions to the Harry Potter family include Kenneth Branagh as the narcissistic new professor of the Defense Against the Dark Arts. Can anyone do ham better than Branagh? I don’t think so. Jason Isaacs is malevolently delicious as the aristocratic father of Harry’s school rival, Draco Malfoy. You could start shivering from the icy glare this man casts.

Chamber of Secrets is better than the earlier Sorcerer’’s Stone in many ways. The story has less exposition and contains darker elements that suit the story surprisingly well. The special effects are vastly improved from the first film. The child acting, as previously mentioned, is much better.

Despite lacking prolonged setup, Chamber of Secrets clocks in around 2 hours and 40 minutes — 9 minutes longer than the first! You could watch your life go by sitting through a Potter movie marathon. This might seem like an eternity to small children if they weren’t so overly obsessed with the book series.

So remember when I said Chamber of Secrets was “mostly” better than the first film? Well that “mostly” is because the amazing adult cast is hardly seen. Gentle giant Robbie Coltrane and Maggie Smith are mere background noise to the story. Headmaster Dumbledore (played by the late Richard Harris) has a weathered feel. What Chamber of Secrets needs are more scenes with the brilliant Alan Rickman, as moody professor Severus Snape. Rickman (Dogma) is perfect and a thrill to watch. I got a fever and only more Rickman can cure it.

Chris Columbus (Home Alone) is a director with no remarkable visual flair or distinct vision. Everything that is occurring is so faithful to the book that it has no individual flavor or distance. It’s directing with your hands tied. It should be Rowling’s name for the director’s credit because she’s the one with the vision being translated.

Harry Potter is a worldwide phenomenon that is already breaking box-office records and parents’ bank accounts. Chamber of Secrets plays toward audience expectations, but all of the components involved seem to be settling in their roles. Chances are whatever you felt about the first film you’ll relive during the second.

Nate’s Grade: B

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

If you don’t know about Harry Potter at this point you must be living under a stone, perhaps a Sorcerer’s stone. The little tyke with glasses and a lightning scar has become a sensation across the seas and of course a big budget movie was merely just a matter of time. The imagination of author J.K. Rowling is bustling with a complex world that has given her acclaim from children and parents all over, not to mention made her filthy rich. The movie is a meticulously faithful adaptation but this is both its strength and its weakness.

The story of Harry Potter is a long and complicated one, full of numerous funny names as well. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is an orphan living with his nasty aunt (Fiona Shaw) and uncle (Riachard Griffiths) who force Harry to live under the stairs. Harry is informed one night by a gigantic and bearded figure named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) that both Harry’s parents were magically inclined and he is to gather his own education at Hogwarts School of Magic. On his way there, after picking up supplies in a special place I have forgotten totally the name of, Harry meets and befriends the aloof Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and the Type-A studious Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). Once there Harry picks up a rival in Draco Malfoy, a cold glare from Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), a good scare from a poor CGI three headed guard dog, and a mastery in the art of broomstick flying. The school sessions are a barrage of characters and minute plot points that readers will just be grinning that have been included.Through later revelations it is divulged that Harry’s parents were killed by the powerful wizard Lord Voldermort. It seems that old Voldy for whatever reason decided not to kill Harry. Thus because of this Harry has worldwide fame as the boy who lived against Voldermort. It seems as well that this evil wizard is trying to achieve immortality by using the advantages of the hidden Sorcerer’s stone. It’s up to Harry and his friends to stop this from happening.

Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) wrestled this franchise away from such directorial heavyweights like Spielberg, and it’s clear to see why he was selected. Rowling ordered the movie adaptation to be completely faithful to her book, and Columbus is a director with no remarkable visual flair or distinct vision. Everything that is occurring is so faithful to the book that it has no individual flavor or distance. It’s directing with your hands tied, which is fine for most people. With this project he seems like he is basically a go-between with Rowling and the studio suits. Basically it should be Rowling’s name for the director’s credit because she’s the one with the vision being translated.

Large portions of this film need to carried by the acting of several of its young stars and it’s quite a 120 million dollar weight. For the most part the child actors in Harry Potter deliver. Emma Watson is the standout as Hermione, with her extra energy and enthusiasm in every step and every smile simply winning over the audience in spades. The only real detraction acting wise in the entire film is, unfortunately, the star. Daniel Radcliffe plays Harry in a very stiff manor and spends most of the film looking overly subdued. After you experience more time with the other characters in the film one realizes how frightfully dull the character of Harry Potter really is. Any of the characters would be more exciting to watch than Harry. As characters go, he’s about as interesting or entertaining as stereo instructions.

Harry Potter contains an all-star all British cast for the fanciful faculty of Hogwarts. Everyone seems so meticulously cast that they were born to play these roles. Richard Harris becomes a gentle grandfatherly figure as the headmaster. Robbie Coltrane is a large and lovable figure that the audience can rely on again and again. Richard Griffiths is so over-the-top in a very entertaining light. Alan Rickman owns every scene he is in with such a snarling and full-of-life presence. He is perfect, as is most of the adult casting.

The most exciting moment of the film occurs during a match of Quidditch, which is basically like rugby in the sky. Two teams on broomsticks whiz and zoom around one another in a fierce aerial competition. At this moment Columbus can declare himself the true director. The entire sequence is done that it perks the viewer’s imagination and also provides great moments of excitement. Seeing the scene itself was a testament to the wizardry of special effects.

The length of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone clocks in around two hours and thirty minutes, which might seem like an eternity to small children if they weren’t so overly obsessed with the book series. The film is structured more like a novel than a screenplay (again with the induced restrictions), so instead of a usual three-act system it has moments that drag and moments that seem to go on endlessly (like the final near obstacle course the three kids must go through). The entire first hour or more is set-up explaining all of the characters and the world they inhabit, then they just sneak in a mention to the Sorcerer’s stone toward the end and introduce our titular story line. Hopefully, with the set-up out of the way now, the next movie will be a tad shorter.

Harry Potter is a worldwide phenomenon that is already breaking box-office records and parents’ bank accounts. The first four books have been optioned by Warner Bros. so expect to see an armada of kids dressed up in Halloween costumes around Thanksgiving for the next few years. Harry Potter is a fairly light-hearted but entertaining venture that I wouldn’t mind revisiting and reacquainting every now and then like an old friend.

Nate’s Grade: B

Gladiator (2000)

Director Ridley Scott has given the world of cinema some of its most unforgettable visual experiences. But can Scott breath new life into a genre whose heyday was when a badly dubbed Steve Reeves oiled his chest and wrestled loincloth-clad extras in the 1950s?

The year is roughly 180 AD and Rome is just finishing up its long-standing assault on anything that moves in the European continent. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) merely wants to retire back to his loving family and get away from the doom and war that has plagued his life. This is made all the more difficult when the ailing Emperor bypasses his treacherous son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and decides to crown Maximus as the Defender of Rome. Because of this Commodus rises to power through bloody circumstances and has Maximus assigned to execution and his family crucified. You’d think crucifixion would be so passé by now. Maximus escapes only to be sold into slavery and bought by a dirt-run gladiator training school. As he advances up the chain and learns the tricks of the primal sport he seeks but vengeance for his fallen family.

Gladiator is an absorbing and sweeping spectacle of carnage and first-rate entertainment. The action is swift and ruthlessly visceral. The first movie in a long time to literally have me poised on the edge of my seat. The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp.

What Gladiator doesn’t sacrifice to the muscle of effects and action is storytelling. Are you listening George Lucas? Gladiator may unleash the beast when the rousing action is loose, but this is coupled with compelling drama and complex characters. Phoenix may at first seem like a snotty brat with an unhealthy eye for his sister (Connie Nielsen), but the further Gladiator continues the more you see in his eyes the troubled youth who just wants the love of his father that was never bestowed to him. Maximus is a devoted family man who regularly kisses clay statues of his family while away, and must ceremoniously dust himself with the earth before any battle.

The acting matches every sword blow and chariot race toe-for-toe. Russell Crowe marks a first-rate staple of heroism. Every calculating glare he exhibits shows the compassion and ferocity of this warrior. He becomes a rare breed – an action hero who can think and actually act. Oliver Reed, in what sadly was his last role, turns in a splendid and charismatic turn as the head of the gladiator school of Fine Arts and Carnage. Mysteriously everyone carries a British accent closer to them then a toga two sizes too small. Even Crowe who is nicknamed “The Spaniard” speaks like he walked out of Masterpiece Theater.

The effects and visuals are a sumptuous feast. The aerial shots of Rome and the Coliseum are simply breath taking. Gladiator rivals American Beauty for the most rose petals used in a movie, except in this one they don’t shoot out of Mena Suvari’s breasts.

Ridley Scott’s track record may be hit or miss but Gladiator is definitely one sorely not to be missed.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2000” article.

%d bloggers like this: