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Gladiator is bread and circuses. It’s a violent, noisy, low-brow distraction. Of course, that’s what some people look for in a movie, but even taken at that level, bad writing and muddled action scenes make Gladiator a disappointment.

Action-Packed Extravaganza

Maximus the Merciful

The misty forests of “Germania” are being invaded by the Romans, led by General Maximus (Russell Crowe). The weaponry, armor, and crowds tell you this movie is going to be a special-effects laden, action-packed extravaganza.

The Romans slaughter the “Germanians” in an impressive battle scene that uses some of the cinematographic tricks that won Janusz Kaminski the academy award for Saving Private Ryan. Unfortunately, Gladiator’s cinematographer, John Mathieson, is no Kaminski, and the effect is used randomly and toward no apparent purpose within the movie.

After the battle, Maximus reports his victory to Marcus Aurelius, Caesar of Rome. Marcus is getting old and is thinking about a successor. His son and heir-apparent, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), is a scheming coward. Marcus prefers a man like Maximus, who is wiser and more temperamental, a man who will return power to the Senate, to the people.

At the next dawn Marcus Aurelius decides that Maximus shall be the next Caesar, and not Commodus. But before the announcement is made public, Commodus suffocates his father, then demands that Maximus support him. Maximus refuses.

Commodus has Maximus taken to be executed. Maximus manages to escape with his life, but he is sold into the slavery of gladiatorial combat.

Magic

The first of my complaints is that the action sequences are badly made. When Maximus escapes his executioners, he does so by magic (or some other editing technique). A better action movie would choreograph the scene, showing us how the hero escaped. Was he fast or strong, perceptive or smart? Instead, director Ridley Scott and editor Pietro Scalia show us a few quick cuts (both of film, and by sword), and voilá, Maximus has killed four men.

The same criticism can be made throughout the film, in every fight scene. However, sometimes the greater criticism of the fight scenes is that much of the violence and gore is gratuitous.

And then, when enough men have died, perhaps you will have your freedom.
— Oliver Reed as Proximo
It seems odd that a movie about gladiators fighting to the death could have gratuitous violence. After all, the subject matter is inherently violent. But Scott seems to revel in shots of decapitation and hacked limbs. In fact, amid the deliberately confusing and chaotic battle scenes, sometimes the only clear shot is of someone dying horribly. Gladiator re-raises questions about the skewed priorities of the MPAA, who consider nudity more harmful to young minds than graphic, gratuitous violence.

Visible Writing

The last of my complaints are about the writing.

Firstly, the character of Commodus was written badly. As soon as we see him, we know he’s a cowardly villain. But in scene after scene, the screenwriters give him fouler and fouler traits. He kills his father. Then he leers at his nephew. Later he makes a pass at his own sister. At some point, it seems like the writers are playing a cruel game at the expense of Joaquin Phoenix: who can make his character the slimiest without forcing Phoenix to quit the picture?

Finally, the writing is visible. If Gladiator is a puppet show, you can see the strings. The people who inhabit the world of Gladiator have no free will; they always do exactly what the screenwriters need them to do. The story, instead of being driven by the characters and the situation, is driven by the obvious presence of desperate screenwriters.

The first example happens early on. Maximus doesn’t want to be Caesar, he just wants to go home to his family. He would rather die than honor Commodus, but he wouldn’t publicly challenge him. But for the sake of the story, Commodus orders Maximus’ family to be executed, which conveniently gives Maximus a reason to live, and a reason to fight.

Another example happens toward the end, when Maximus has beaten Rome’s best gladiator. The crowd in the Coliseum is on its feet, chanting and shouting for Maximus to finish him off. They want blood. Instead, Maximus spares his life, and amazingly (and coincidentally), this bloodthirsty mob undergoes a change of heart, en masse. Moments before, the slightest provocation could have started an orgy of killing among this crowd, but now it suddenly applauds “Maximus the merciful.”

I get the impression that audiences are eagerly awaiting Gladiator, and I wish I could recommend it. There are just too many problems with the writing, the editing, and ultimately, the direction for Gladiator to be worth seeing.

If you have to see Gladiator for yourself, lower your expectations and perhaps you’ll enjoy it.