Ridley Scott's Gladiator, which swept the largest (twelve) number of nominations in 2000, is a large-scale production that notwithstanding its blood and gore was basically a sand-and-sandals throwback to such historical adventures as Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis With its central rebel-hero and old-fashioned mythic battle of good versus evil, safely placed in the past, it resembled the Mel Gibson vehicle, Braveheart, as well as numerous costume dramas of yesteryear.
A long (154 minutes), big-budgeted (over 200 million dollars) picture, replete with royal intrigues, simplistic heroism, and grisly combats, Gladiator was set in 180 AD. The aging Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), is eliminated by his treacherous son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who resents the favored status of general Maximus (Crowe). Sent away by Commodus, Maximus escapes death, becomes a prisoner, and is later sold by an entrepreneur (Oliver Reed, in his last role) who forces him to become a gladiator. After finding out that his wife and son were murdered by Commodus, Maximus conceals his identity. His idealized memory of his lost family serves as the vengeance motive for a life-long, single-minded pursuit. The story then moves to Rome and concludes, like most routine actioners, with a combat between the two men.
The CGI effects-driven Roman spectacle has its moments, such as the gladiators entrance into the Colosseum, which is a visual coup, and the dynamic and brutal gladiatorial contests. Its cliche evocation of the Roman empire, as scripted by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson, uses elements from previous epics, though there is less speeches and none of the Judeo-Christian conflicts that defined the genre in the 1950s. Reveling in the glory and horror of the games, the presents them as gaudy, lowbrow entertainment.
With the exception of Variety, Gladiator was dismissed by most critics as a popcorn movie blown to epic proportions. Some reviewers deemed it the least scintillating Oscar winner since Gandhi, while other dismissed it as one of the weakest films ever to win the top prize. For Roger Ebert, the choice represented “a case of temporary insanity on the part of the Academy.”
In a well-publicized rebuttal in the New York Times, the critic Pauline Kael said: “I was shocked at how bad Gladiator was technically. It has the worst editing.” Baffled by the praise showered on Crowe, as the silent hero-warrior, Kael observed: “It's absurd casting that actor as a gladiator. Your look at him flexing his muscles and you want to laugh. He's like one of the Three Stooges.”
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