Friday, February 23, 2018

Gladiator Is Straightforward To A Fault

Aside from them both being Best Picture winners, it's doubtful anyone would ever think to compare Gladiator and Driving Miss Daisy, but that's just what I'm going to be doing today. Obviously, both films differ greatly in terms of story, tone and types of characters they explore, but both are feature films that I've watched for the first time recently that are amiable endeavors that also can't help but feel like they're a little basic, they stick to tried-and-true storytelling & characters too heavily and in the process feel like they're eschewing the chance to carve out their own identity, though at least Gladiator does have the distinction of reviving the swords-and-sandals genre in a big way at the dawn of the 21st century.

 Our titular Gladiator is Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), a General for the Roman army who has become a legendary warrior in the way he manages to procure glorious victories for his soldiers and the empire he fights for. However, the son of the current emperor, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), usurps the throne by covertly murdering his father and now see's Maximus as an obstacle in his path to securing as powerful of a throne as possible. To that end, he slaughters the wife and son of Maximus before ordering the execution of Maximus himself. Though Maximus is lucky enough to manage to survive, his wife and son are not as lucky and they are brutally slaughtered by the orders of newly minted emperor Commodus.

Now looking for vengeance, Maximus, who is thought to be dead by Commodus and the public at large, is sold into slavery as a fighter, a profession he finds enough success in to garner a chance to fight in the Roman Colosseum for the entertainment of Commodus and the people of Rome. It is here that Maximus has a chance to exact his revenge, which is basically the beginning and end of his character. Maximus is a fighter first and foremost, with the sole entity (his family) distracting him from pursuing this cause as a general and later as a colosseum fighter being wiped out early on in the story so that he'll have a greater reason to pursue violent revenge.

He's a simple lead character for a simple story and that's not an entirely bad thing. This is the kind of film that strips everything down to the bone which at least means there aren't any extraneous subplots to hinder the pacing or provide odd storytelling digressions. On the other hand, it also means Maximus and especially the supporting cast are primarily inert individuals who are hard to get dramatically invested in. The action sequences are handsomely crafted (Ridley Scott knows how to make stuff look pretty on-screen, shocker ), but they uniformly lack the sort of emotional investment in the viewer that more strikingly realized characters could have immediately instilled in the audience.

Still, though it could be better with more complex characters, Gladiator is obviously striving to be traditional storytelling with similarly traditional characters and on that front it works fine. More problematic is it's ever-shifting attitude towards violence, with Gladiator as a movie never quite settling on whether the viewer is supposed to view on-screen carnage as either a bad thing or something meant to instill cries of "AWESOME!!!" from 13-year-old boys. That creates some odd dissonance in various parts of the story, though, again, at least the action sequences are, aside from some odd usage of slow-motion, well-executed thanks to Ridley Scott's proclivity towards delivering visually pleasing spectacle.

While it may sound like I'm being super critical of Gladiator, I don't mean to be. The movie mostly held my attention, delivers some memorable imagery, the performances are pretty good (Joaquin Phoenix is hammy fun as a nasty young Emperor) and does have some sweeping moments fitting for a feature intentionally aping the mid-20th Century Hollywood epics. It does feel like an overly straightforward tale though and I couldn't help but wish there was more meat on it's bones either in regards to its characters or the themes it explores. Again, like 1989's Driving Miss Daisy, Gladiator is satisfactory cinema that feels like it misses the chance to be something more.

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