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Gladiator

So how about we just get all the Russell Crowe movies out of the way in one shot. In 1999, Crowe made a wonderful movie called The Insider, in which he played a former tobacco company scientist who went on 60 Minutes to testify that the industry knew about the health risks of smoking long before they admitted there were any risks publicly. It was one of the best movies Crowe ever made, and it had no shot at winning an Oscar because it was released the same year as American Beauty. So the Academy made it up to him the following year by giving a boatload of awards to Gladiator, the first major sword and sandal epic since the epic failure of Cleopatra basically killed the entire genre 38 years earlier.

This is basically a sports movie, despite the first fifteen minutes being a war movie. You get the grizzled old coach, Proximo, bringing along the hot new athlete, Maximus, who has the potential to be the greatest in history. Maximus and his merry band of teammates face an ever increasing level of competition, until it all comes down to the big game, Maximus one-on-one with the Emperor of Rome, who in a stunning show of good sportsmanship, stabs Maximus beforehand.

Yes, the Emperor did get in the ring. Commodus ruled from 180-192 and at first was very popular among citizens and the army. Not so much with the Senate, who he taxed to pay for several social programs for the poor. So when in the movie, the 17 year old newly crowned Caesar enters Rome to cheering throngs of people, that actually did happen. However Commodus was so enamored with tales of his own virility, he stepped into the ring as a gladiator. In the ring he took on both other gladiators and wild beasts, and racked up an undefeated record. This caused his ego to go through the roof, and he began referring to himself as Hercules and the new Romulus and naming months after his various nicknames. With Commodus acting like a prima donna, his popularity tanked, and eventually a coup organized by several Senators lead to an athlete named Narcissus strangling the emperor in his bath. Narcissus was not a general, like Maximus was, but he seemed to be the personal trainer of the emperor and a noted Olympic wrestler.

The movie would have you believe Commodus was only on the throne for a short time, and was a twisted tyrant for his entire short reign and his death returned Rome to the glory days of the republic. Well, 12 years is hardly a short time, he seemed to have been a decent and just ruler until his ego got the best of him, and after Commodus was assassinated in 192, the next republic to spring up was San Marino more than a century later, and no generals-turned-gladiators had anything to do with it. (The founder of San Marino, Marinus, was actually a priest fleeing persecution by escaping into the mountains, where he founded a church, and a city, then a country, flourished around it, and he probably deserves a movie of his own.)

But even if the movie does take some liberties with history, the fight scenes are quite good, although somewhat confusing at times. What is truly amazing is the CGI. The producers completely recreated Rome as it was in the second century. The scenes inside the Flavian Amphitheater (you call it the Colosseum) are unbelievably good. The only glitch in the CGI is in one scene where Commodus looks out at the city from his balcony, and the special effect is far from seamless.

Not as amazing is the character development. We learn some things about Maximus, like that he had a wife and son who were killed when he failed to swear allegiance to Commodus, and he seems to have been fairly close to Commodus and his sister Lucilla once upon a time. Thatís about all we know about the man. We know scattered bits and pieces about other characters as well, enough to about Commodus to know he was a dick, enough about Marcus Aurelius to know he longed for the old republic (although that was likely untrue). As for the gladiators who fight alongside Maximus, we know little more than their names, and often not even that much.

Crowe also won best actor that year, though his acting in both The Insider and A Beautiful Mind were much better than this. In fact, the only acting that stands out comes from Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus, Oliver Reed as Proximo, and Djimon Hounsou bursting onto the scene as Juba, two years before his performance in In America that everyone said burst him onto the scene, and six years before his performance in Blood Diamond that everyone said burst him onto the scene.

Good production values aside, this is pretty much an empty summer action thriller that gets vast stretches of history wrong. Other nominees that year included Chocolat, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, and Wo Hu Cang Long. Traffic and Erin Brockovich are the kinds of movies that simply scream out "look at me, look at me, give me a statue," so naturally Iím predisposed to dislike them. Chocolat is different however. Itís a sweet little movie, beautifully acted and wonderfully shot. Not nominated for the big prize were Cast Away, a great movie that probably should have earned Tom Hanks another best actor statue, O Brother, Where Art Thou, a Coen brothers movie based on Homerís The Odyssey, Best in Show from Christopher Guestís troupe, and Cameron Croweís Almost Famous. As well made as Gladiator is, the Coens, Guest, and Robert Nelson Jacobs (who wrote Chocolat) gave us far more entertaining fare, and the Coens give us not only the best soundtrack and some of the best cinematography of the year, but some of the best dialogue ever. When trying to pick a movie to sit down with on a rainy evening, I know Iíll get far more enjoyment out of seeing Ulysses Everett McGill try to keep his coiffure in order that in watching Maximus cut and slash his way to a palace coup.


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