My main motivation for watching Gladiator came from looking up random reviews on Ebert’s site one day. He gave Gladiator two stars, which I couldn’t believe. It won best picture for crying out loud! It should’ve been better than that! I had to check this thing out and see if it was really that bad. My roommate loves the film so I had to see who was right here. I also like Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix so I had two more good reasons to see this.
Gladiator tells the story of Maximus (Russell Crowe), a general who became (guess what) a gladiator. The emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is dying and has to name a successor who will do the right thing for Rome. His only son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) expects to be announced as his father’s successor. However, he has other plans. Maximus has just won a major battle and he’s always liked him more, plus everybody can see that Commodus is just an immature whiny brat that won’t take care of Rome at all. Marcus Aurelius names Maximus is his successor until he sees the right moment to give complete power over the the senate and thereby the people. Maximus just wants to go back to his wife and son, so he is hesitant to go for it. He doesn’t really get a chance to refuse because Commodus kills his father and takes over before Maximus knows what’s going on.
Commodus gives Maximus a chance to be friends with him, but he refuses and this causes Commodus to have him executed. Maximus is like the ultimate fighter so that doesn’t work. He kills all the guys that come after him, getting injured in the process, and sets off towards home to make sure his family is okay. They’re not. Commodus sends a bunch of guys to kill them and Maximus just misses them. Maximus feels so sorry for himself that he just lies around in the dirt for awhile until some slave traders pick him up and low and behold, he’s a gladiator.
This is when most of the fights kick in. Maximus gets put in fight after fight and wins them all pretty easily. He makes friends with all the of the other gladiators, especially Juba (Djimon Hounsou). Commodus holds like a bazillion days of gladiator fighting to distract everybody from what a terrible ruling job he’s doing, and Maximus fights in them trying to gain crowd support so he won’t be killed. Eventually the plan is to get close enough to Commodus to kill him in revenge! He can’t just think about himself though, because his continuous winning is making him more beloved than Commodus. Commodus’ sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) convinces him to use the troops that are still loyal to him to take over Rome and then give power back to the senate as was the original plan. Obviously this would necessitate killing Commodus which is a nice plus. He eventually goes for it because at this point he doesn’t have much to loose and he is still loyal to Marcus Aurelius and his vision for Rome’s future.
Watching this movie did not go as I had thought it would. The audience is clearly supposed to sympathize with Maximus and his plight and hate Commodus because he’s just a terrible person. Well, I kind of felt the opposite, because apparently I’m a terrible person too! I thought Commodus was the more interesting character and I barely sympathized with Maximus at all. It was clear he was going to win in the end, and he was so one-dimensional I was just not involved with him at all. I don’t really blame Crowe, because he’s awesome and he’s totally heroic and all in this role, but I was just not behind the character because I had summed him up at the beginning. I usually can’t predict movies too well, but this one I could, and it’s mainly because of Maximus’ character.
On the other hand, I though Commodus was interesting because he was so horrible. He was really just a whiny kid though, like seriously he threw temper tantrums every five seconds. That should be annoying at the very least, but really it just had me laughing and kind of feeling sorry for the guy. He has to be a rotten person all of the time, poor guy. His dad never loved him, and even though he’s in love with his sister which is socially unacceptable to say the least, I still felt bad for him because there is no way that’s ever going to happen. Nobody loves this guy, it’s sad. If he had just had more friends as a child he probably would have been fine. So I wasn’t really rooting for him because that would have been useless, but I sympathized with him and infinitely preferred his scenes because of this weird contrast between him just being a pathetic loser and also controlling all of Rome. How does someone that childish get all of that control? It’s just kind of off-putting and therefore, I sympathized with the wrong character. I’ll admit it, I’m a terrible person.
There were several things that bothered me about this film, and one them was Scott’s direction. He did some weird stuff that I didn’t like at times that distracted me, even though in the grand scheme of the movie shouldn’t really matter. Especially towards the beginning there were a lot of scene transitions that used time-lapse shots of clouds. It just didn’t fit somehow and every time it happened I got mad. I can’t really explain why I think it didn’t fit, but I just felt like time-lapse videos should not happen in Ancient Rome I guess. I mean, in all fairness film at all shouldn’t happen, but I guess I just wanted a more natural style or something. He also used some weird tints at times that I didn’t like. I can remember them being used at the end, and even though there was a valid reason for this to happen, I still didn’t like it. So I guess the moral here is that I didn’t like some of the stylistic choices he made, even though they don’t really hold the movie back for anybody but me. I will give him credit for the snow though. In the beginning there were some great shots of the snow flying around and you could see every flake. It was beautiful and cold.
Also the fight scenes didn’t have as much emotional weight because I was watching the movie incorrectly. I didn’t really care what happened to Maximus that much, plus I was convinced that he was already going to win anyway. It was just like “oh look another fight scene, I wonder who’s going to win this one….” There was one point when a tiger jumped on him that was really cool. While the fight scenes weren’t bad by any means, I was just not involved with them. I definitely was for the ending one though, because Commodus was in it. There was also one where Commodus was going crazy on the sidelines which I laughed very hard at.
So even though I watched the movie wrong, I still enjoyed myself. I was kind of frustrated with it/myself because I was watching it this way, but I also kind of thought that it was like watching a gladiator match. I was on the side of seeing more conflict, which is what happens when Commodus is in the picture. I really doubt that this is what was intended, but it still kind of works. It’s a fun movie, especially if you like your gladiator fights or revenge movies. It’s well acted across the board, even though some of the direction and characters bothered me. It seems I wasn’t the only one not blown away by Scott’s direction though; this is one of those rare best picture winners where the corresponding director doesn’t win. He was nominated however, and the film also received nominations for best picture, best actor (Crowe), supporting actor (Phoenix), costume design, visual effects, best sound, art direction, cinematography, editing, original score, and best screenplay. It won five out of twelve: best picture, Crowe for best actor, costume design, visual effects, and sound. So all in all, I don’t think it was as bad as Ebert said because it was still a fun movie, but also I’m not sure if it’s best picture worthy. I would have gone with O Brother, Where Art Thou? personally, because that’s one of my favorite films. The Academy didn’t even nominate it of course, but Gladiator was still an enjoyable movie that I would definitely watch again at some point.
“It vexes me. I’m terribly vexed.”
Long story short: 2.5/4 stars