Over the years, it seems that Hollywood has forgotten how to make great Roman era epics. Watching Ridley Scott's award-winning "Gladiator", it was obvious to me that they still can't remember.
"Gladiator" follows the story of Maximus Decimus Meridus (Russel Crowe), the emperor's new favorite to become his heir. The emperor's son, Commodus (Joaquin Pheonix), is enraged. He kills his father and exiles Maximus, who escapes to find that both his wife and son have been killed. He is found by slave traders, who sell him to gladiator trainer Proximo (Oliver Reed, who died during production*). As he competes in matches in the Colosseum, Maximus's life soon becomes a quest for vengance.
This is a brainless action movie posing as a thoughtful one. The fight scenes, when they occur, can either be exhilirating or an incredible bore. The opening sequence in Germania is yawn-inducing, while some of the Colosseum fights, one involving tigers, are quite something (albeit very similar to WWF matches).
It is very hard to accept this as a popcorn flick. There's too much campy drama, brought about by a monotonous script. Apparently the writers forgot how to use a thesaurus; the words "Rome", "glory", "vengance" and "kill" (seemingly) serve as the complete vocabulary for all of Rome. The characters are incredibly flat. Smiles, good humor and anything else that would have lifted the spirits of these dreary characters are nearly nonexistent.
The film's visuals are depressingly ugly, with a very limited color pallette. The audience is treated to brown, orange and tan for two and a half hours- the whole thing might have just as well filmed in sepia color tones. The special effects are bland, colorless, and lack detail. People will no doubt be impressed with the digital work to restore the Colosseum, but this feat pales in comparison to other films which have a much richer quality to their visuals- "The Phantom Menace" or "Sleepy Hollow", for example.
The acting is mediocre. Russel Crowe gives a stable performance, but it does not consist of much more than yelling, grunting and stabbing. Joaquin Pheonix whimpers all the way through his performance, which gets very tiresome and comes off as pathetic. The only real balance comes from Connie Nielsen, who plays Commodus's well-meaning sister. She does well in an otherwise dull ensemble.
There is no way "Gladiator" could have been a great film on the level of "Spartacus" or "Ben Hur". However it could have been a fun popcorn movie, had it stuck to being just that. But in the end, poor decisions in art direction, casting, and a deplorable screenplay turn this summer blockbuster into a wannabe of epic proportions.
*Fancy editing and computer effects were used to give the illusion of Reed's presence in scenes he did not complete.