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Friday, June 16, 2000

'GLADIATOR'

Feed him to the computer graphics!


In Hollywood, like the realms of rock music and fashion as well, if you wait long enough, you'll see every expired trend resuscitated for yet another go. Case in point this month is "Gladiator," director Ridley Scott's ambitious Roman mega-spectacle, which revives the old "sword and sandal" genre of the '50s and '60s.

Don't get me wrong: "Gladiator" is not a bad film at all; in fact, it's visually stunning, easily the most impressive work Scott has done since "Blade Runner." But it is apparent that reaction to this film is splitting along a fault line called "age." Just as Green Day has precious little impact on those who experienced the Clash firsthand, "Gladiator" seems less impressive to those old enough to have seen "Ben Hur" or "Spartacus" on the big screen (especially since the plot seems like a pastiche of those two films, along with "The Fall of the Roman Empire").

But for younger viewers, whose memory of those earlier classics is limited to video or TV viewings, the wide-screen impact of the chariot combat, CG-generated tiger pits and the huge panoramic vistas of imperial Rome will no doubt leave them awestruck. As for myself, I'm kind of walking the line on this one: The action pieces are truly breathtaking -- particularly the mayhem of the opening cavalry charge against a horde of barbarian Huns -- but I couldn't help but wish for some sort of fresh insight into ancient Rome and its penchant for blood sport. None was forthcoming, however, as "Gladiator" pretty much sticks with the expected tropes.

"Gladiator" begins on the frontiers of the Roman empire, as emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) masses his legions for one last battle to impose Roman rule on Germania. Leading his forces is General Maximus (Russell Crowe), a bold cavalry commander who distinguishes himself in battle. He's a reluctant warrior, though, wanting only for the campaign to finish so that he can return to his family and farmland in Hispanica.

The dying emperor, however, seeks one last favor from his loyal follower: He asks Maximus to take control of the legions, and restore republican rule in Rome. Maximus reluctantly agrees, but the Emperor's son and heir-apparent Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, looking like someone far too obsessed with the sins of Onan) is less than thrilled with this plan. Upon the emperor's demise, Commodus launches a putsch, and Maximus is target number one.

He narrowly escapes, but is too late to save his family from retribution, and -- wounded -- falls into the hands of slave trader Proximus (Oliver Reed), who forces him to become a gladiator in the provinces. He loathes the idea of combat as sport, but his fierce fighting skills earn him the respect of his fellow gladiators. Success leads to a career in the Colosseum in Rome, where now-emperor Commodus has restored gladiatorial combat (after a ban imposed by his father) in an attempt to keep the Roman public happy and docile.

The Emperor's sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), fearing Commodus' megalomania and barely restrained incestuous impulses, is thrilled to learn that her old flame Maximus has survived. She surreptitiously contacts him and introduces the popular gladiator to Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi, of "I, Claudius" fame), who shares Maximus' goal of restoring responsible, democratic rule. Maximus despairs, saying "the Gods that spared me, I am at their mercy, only with the power to amuse the mob." But as Lucilla quickly points out, "that is power."

One senses a critique forming here: "Gladiator" presents Maximus -- and the aging emperor Marcus Aurelius -- as admirable reformers, striving to restore Rome as a republic, with a functioning democracy instead of the dictatorship of the Caesars. But while this is obviously meant as a sop to contemporary audiences, it ignores the obvious, both historically and in the film's own plot-line.

The film's biggest irony is that Maximus fails to realize that restoring democracy means putting the power in the hands of the people, i.e. the same mob who are baying for blood at the Colosseum. Every nation gets the leaders it deserves, and for Rome, it seemed that the public could tolerate any inbred incompetent in the top spot as long as he provided bread and circuses (and, ahem, public works projects).

Like any decent sword-and-sandal epic, though, the set design, costumes and action set-pieces are so engaging that one can forgive the deficiencies and rather obvious developments of the plot. The cinematography of the opening battle sequence is astounding. Scott employs an impressionistic style, full of jump cuts and hand-held cameras glancing the action from strange angles, to create an overwhelming maelstrom of chaos. Similarly impressive are the eerie, otherworldly dream sequences that bracket the film, and the high-impact tension as chariot scythes smash into the thin wall of shields of our hoplite heroes. Gripping, edge-of-your-seat stuff.

But that also raises an inescapable question: While "Gladiator" vaguely indicts the brutal idea of enjoying death as entertainment, are we not going to see this film for the same reasons the Roman mob went to the Colosseum, even if we reassure ourselves that it's "fake"? There's a point to be made on human nature here, but the filmmakers seem wary of making it.

For all its savage blood sport, however, the film doesn't go nearly as far as it could in showing how decadent the Romans really were: night games at the Colosseum that were lit with flaming Christians on crosses, Gallic maidens ripped limb from limb by wild horses, prostitutes servicing donkeys and the like. A study of the historical record presents an almost unimaginable litany of atrocities that were presented as entertainment, which I guess only shows that we postmodern civilized types prefer our bloodletting like our meat: boneless, bloodless and far removed from the stench of the abattoir. It's so much more palatable that way.

"Gladiator" is playing at Tokyu Bunka Kaikan in Shibuya and other theaters.


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