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Pulp Culture
'Gladiator' is
swords, sandals and
lots of close-ups

May 11, 2000
By Franklin Harris

Russell Crowe broods. He glares. He glowers. He is Maximus, and when it comes to fighting, Maximus kicks you-know-what.

And that's about all there is to "Gladiator," the latest film from director Ridley Scott.

Scott has made some great films, including "Alien" and "Blade Runner." He has also made some certified duds, like "G.I. Jane" and "White Squall." "Gladiator" falls somewhere in-between.

On the one hand, "Gladiator" features fine performances from Crowe ("The Insider"), Richard Harris as Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Derek Jacobi as Senator Gracchus and the late Oliver Reed (who died during filming) as Proximo, a former gladiator turned showman.

On the other hand, the film has Joaquin Phoenix as the slimy Emperor Commodus, who, we are led to understand, is a bad guy because his father didn't love him enough.

Phoenix is no Christopher Plummer, who took a turn as a far more threatening Commodus in 1964's "The Fall of the Roman Empire." Phoenix's Commodus isn't so much in need of assassination as he is of a sound spanking.

And I'm not the first -- and I certainly won't be the last -- to note that "Gladiator" is almost a remake of that earlier film, which was the last gasp of the sword-and-sandals genre of films.

It's a genre that includes spectacles like "Ben-Hur" and "Spartacus" on one end of the spectrum and badly dubbed Italian "Hercules" films on the other.

Maximus is Rome's greatest general. After leading the Roman legions to victory against the Germans, he finds himself given an unenviable task: The dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius wants Maximus to restore the Roman Republic.

Naturally, Marcus Aurelius' plans don't sit well with his son, Commodus, who is already measuring the palace for new carpet, so to speak.

Commodus kills his father and tries to do the same to Maximus. But as this is a feature film and not a short, Maximus escapes.

His freedom is short-lived, however, for soon he is enslaved and sold to Proximo, owner of a travelling gladiator show.

That sums up about the first half-hour. From there, "Gladiator" rushes headlong toward its inevitable climax.

All roads lead to Rome, and so does Proximo's show.

I'm giving nothing away by telling you that it all comes down to Maximus vs. Commodus, mano a mano in the arena.

What most separates "Gladiator" from its epic predecessors is how surprisingly unepic it is.

Scott's directorial style suits him well in claustrophobic, paranoid films like "Alien" and "Blade Runner," but it's his downfall here.

The fight scenes, which, frankly, are the only reason to make the film, are shot in close-up, making them hard to follow. And Scott's tendency to go for the MTV-style quick cut doesn't help matters. Scott never really pulls back to let us see the battles. Instead, we get flailing arms and the occasional flying head. But we get no perspective.

Ancient Rome never felt so small.

The Mighty Hercules

It was not so back in the Good Old Days. In those days, women were women, and men were gods.

In those days, Steve Reeves was Hercules.

Reeves, who played the Greek hero in a series of Italian imports in the 1950s and '60s, died this past week at 74.

Reeves was also a bodybuilder. He earned the titles of Mr. America in 1947, Mr. World and Mr. Universe in 1948 and Mr. Universe again in 1950, making him a role model for the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Younger fans may know Reeves best from the two of his films that were picked apart on "Mystery Science Theater 3000," "Hercules" and "Hercules Unchained."

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