On paper, this was always going to a be a promising team-up: director Ridley Scott meets Roman epic. The question wasn't really one of "was it going to be any good?" but more "just how good would it be?" This guy may have been responsible for Blade Runner (God bless him) but he also gave us G.I. Jane remember? I finally caught up with Gladiator after it had been showing (to packed houses and retaining its No. 1 box office position) over a month after it had opened. Plot in one sentence: Roman General is betrayed, sold into slavery, trained as a gladiator and returns to Rome to seek his revenge.
After reading the reviews which kept banging on about the non-existant plot and dreadful dialogue, I went into the theatre (the lovely screen 1 at the Empire, Leicester Square in London) with my hopes for the film fully in check and expecting the worst. This is always a good move and often helps you enjoy a film far more than you would otherwise. The first few reels set in Germania were both unexpected and a delight. It was like Braveheart in the Roman era but without all the pomp that one normally associates with Roman epics. This was gritty, dirty, exciting, bloody, brutal and, as expected, beautiful to look at. And although it did go on for much longer than I thought it would, we eventually had to return the familiar cityscapes and bustling street scenes more typical of the genre.
But before we get to Rome, we are treated to a slightly unusual (and slightly confusing) diversion into the deserts of Africa where our ex-General is subjected to slavery and trained (by Oliver Reed on top form in his final role) as a fighting machine. Reed's presence injects some welcome humour into to proceedings and provides the film with its single most quoteable line: "You sold me a couple of queer giraffes!". It is once we get back to Rome that almost everything takes a disappointing turn. The obvious attempts at keeping at least some politics in the plot are only token gestures and as such fail to stir (or engage) like the political back stabbing in earlier Hollywood Roman epics. Either Scott or (most likely) the studio wasn't gonna let boring old politics get in the way of some tried and tested macho heroics. The resulting sandwich is of two very thick slices of testosterone-pumping action with a very pale and thin slice of political intrigue in the middle.
The cast are largely well-placed even if most of the performances take second place to Scott realising his 'vision'. Russell Crowe is perfect in the lead role and his remarkable similarities to Mel Gibson (in his younger, more impressive, i.e. less Lethal Weapon sequel, days) make you think you are watching Mel half the time anyhow (Gibson was Scott's original choice for the lead but wasn't available). Crowe's performance, given the material, seems as impressive as anything Mel could have pulled off in similar circumstances. There are some genuinely bad pieces of dialogue that sound like the sort of thing normally consigned to the cutting room floor, there are definately moments where the film drags and boredom creeps in, and there are a few not-so-special CGI effects that wouldn't look out of place on a Playstation game intro (such as the very digital and artificial-looking arrival into Rome sequence). Surprisingly, I found myself disgusted by the on-screen brutality and the enjoyment that society portrayed used to get from watching it. The moment when one of the fledgling warriors pisses himself in terror just before entering the arena hints at a far more rewarding film lurking within the framework of David Franzoni's story. It's just a shame that Scott (or the studio) decided only to offer us a one-dimensional take on it.
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