“At my signal, unleash hell,” intones Gen. Maximus (Russell Crowe), the hero of this turgid slab of big-budget bloodletting called Gladiator. What’s odd is that Maximus is the movie’s man of peace: He’d rather be tilling the soil on his farm in Spain—“the smell of herbs in the day, jasmine in the evening”—and kicking back under a night sky that’s “black like my wife’s hair” than out at the far end of the Roman Empire cleaving infidels in twain. But, as one Roman officer puts it, “Some people don’t know when they’re conquered.” So, Maximus must stifle his agrarian longings and do his duty by the empire, burying his big sword in sundry heathens for the sake of the greater good. After all this altruistic hacking and beheading, how does the jealous new emperor, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), honor the sterling military leader? By dispatching goons to kill him and to crucify his wife and little son. And how does Maximus respond? This might be ancient Rome, but some things are eternal:
It’s tempus paybackus.
The road to Rome is greased with gore, and I’m not just being lyrical. Our Maximus gets scraped off the ground and sold to a showman named Proximo (Oliver Reed), who’s the P.T. Barnum of Roman circuses. (“I shall be closer to you in the next few days than your bitch of a mother when you were in the womb.”) So, the ex-general enters the Coliseum as a notorious gladiator called The Spaniard in a masked get-up not too dissimilar from the costumes worn by our own more histrionic pro wrestlers. Unlike those guys, however, Maximus isn’t big on pointing and gnashing his teeth. He simply wants to hack and behead his way up to the emperor, then meet up with junior and the missus in that big farm in the sky.
Now that’s entertainment.
Look, I’m as much of a bloodthirsty Roman as the next male moviegoer. I’ve sat through entire Jean-Claude Van Damme pictures on pay cable (never on the regular channels with the blood laundered out—what would be the point?). But Gladiator’s combination of grim sanctimony and drenching, Dolby-ized dismemberings left me appalled. The filmmakers—screenwriters David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson; and the director, Ridley Scott—clearly wanted to make an old-fashioned sword-and-sandal epic with state-of-the-art brutality. They couldn’t go as far as they wanted and keep their “R” rating, so the violence comes in split-second, splattery bursts—multiple spears piercing breastplates, torsos getting bisected, heads whirling off.
Sam Peckinpah might have made something coherent, even exhilarating, of these battles and even connected emotionally with the picture’s paranoid scenario. (He’d have loved all the betrayals.) But Ridley Scott has always been better at foreplay than action: His best film, Alien (1979), is mostly one long tracking shot to the gurgling sounds of an upset stomach. The most evocative stuff in Gladiator comes before the first big battle: the clank-clank-clank of primitive spear-lobbers being wound, the arrows being lit, the soldiers rising from their prayers into a milkily luminous mist. But once the hand-to-hand combat begins, the film turns into a bloody porridge. There’s lots of arrhythmic slow motion and a strange, rotoscopic flickering that signals either bogus acceleration or computer tinkering. (A lot of this movie was generated by computer, including 33,000 of the 35,000 Coliseum extras.) You can’t tell who’s stabbing whom, but there’s no avoiding the sound of swords going kerchunk into flesh while blood spritzes merrily up into the frame. (Those computer animators were clearly having themselves a party.)
Virtuoso direction might have helped Gladiator, but it wouldn’t have saved it: It would still be a Rambo movie manqué, combining the worst of Cecil B. DeMille with the crudest elements of The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). I’ve seen subtler characterizations in Don “The Dragon” Wilson kickboxing pictures. Could this villain, Commodus—the name sounds like Latin for “of the latrine”—be any more repulsive? When he’s not lusting after his sister (Connie Nielsen), he’s gazing lasciviously on her little son. Commodus snivels about not having had his father’s love, but what we register isn’t his humanity but his lisping effeminacy, his heavy brow, and his off-center philtrum. (Phoenix’s peculiar physiognomy makes him an interesting hero but a too-obvious bad guy.) By the end, he’s like Ernst Blofeld crossed with some psychotic movie mogul. Before absurdly leaping into the arena with Maximus, he actually savors the film’s ad line: “The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story …”
The mogul comparison isn’t accidental. Gladiator plays the postmodern game of having its characters moralize about its own fascist aesthetic, as when a patrician senator (Derek Jacobi) complains that Commodus might be a successful emperor because he “distracts [the mob], brings them death, and they love him for it. He reaches people through brutality.” And Proximo tells Maximus that if he wins the crowd, he will win his freedom: “Thrust this [sword] into another man’s flesh, and then they will applaud and love you.” Are the screenwriters telling us we’re no better than the Roman mob? I don’t think so. I think they’re trying to stroke us, to remind us that we’re actually more evolved: We don’t root indiscriminately; we root for the good guys. And that blood on screen isn’t real!
Well, I felt sated, blood-drunk, and annoyed at myself for staying until the risible climax. True, I wanted to see the last of Oliver Reed, who died during shooting and whose impish turn might be his slyest and subtlest. (OK, it’s subtle in the context of Gladiator.) And Russell Crowe is no disgrace. Noting that the actor went from the gauche, chunky Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider (1999) to the strapping warrior of Gladiator with little change in affect, director Ridley Scott praised Crowe’s ability to “internalize” his parts. I’d argue, less kindly, that in Crowe’s case, the clothes really do make the man. But I don’t want to be too flip. The actor works hard and appears to be taking this material seriously. His dogged realism keeps the picture from drifting into Victor Mature-style camp—a mixed blessing from my point of view, although not, I imagine, from DreamWorks’.
A random observation: The hearing of humans was apparently much more acute 2,000 years ago. In the Coliseum, Maximus and Commodus softly hiss at each other, and the 35,000 Romans in attendance appear to pick up every word and register every nuance. Whereas we, poor 21st-century sods, need THX Dolby Surround Sound out of 50 speakers to register someone getting disemboweled with a broadsword.
C olleagues of mine snicker when I admit to a love for the whole of Mike Figgis’oeuvre, including the embarrassing missteps—i.e., most of his movies. I’ve heard him likened to a tedious doctoral student, but if he sometimes writes like a structuralist pointy-head, he directs like a breathless child who can’t stop piling on perspectives, who wishes he could be in four different places at once.
With Timecode, he has gotten his wish, and the upshot is a triumph—a movie that’s not only both challenging and entertaining, it’s entertaining because it’s challenging. As you’ve doubtless heard, Figgis splits the screen into four squares, each of which contains 90 minutes of uninterrupted footage from a digital video camera. Four of those cameras simultaneously tracked his large ensemble cast in and around a fictional Los Angeles production company—not unlike the one that produced Figgis’ second-to-last flop. He gave the actors a story and let them improvise their lines, but the movie isn’t as dull as most improvs because Figgis has four possible soundtracks to sample, and he directs our attention by raising the volume on one screen or another. (If Timecode makes the editor unnecessary, it makes the sound editor twice as important.)
In Figgis’ view—partially voiced by an avant-garde filmmaker (Mia Maestro) pitching a similar film to the onscreen production company before she veers off into unintelligible BS—digital video won’t simply give the option of near-professional moviemaking to anyone who can afford a camera. It can also make it easier to have multiple protagonists and perspectives on the same event.
You’re “distanced”—how could you not be? And you miss a lot. (I still haven’t figured out the connections between some of the characters.) But once you get used to moving your head up and down and back and forth, you might start to groove (there’s no other word for it) on seeing different things happening in different places at the exact same instant—a point Figgis drives home by having all the characters shaken periodically by earthquakes. In one corner you might have the rich, jealous Jeanne Tripplehorn smooching with Salma Hayek; in another Julian Sands (an insolent, actorish type amusingly cast as a masseur) caressing someone’s feet; in another Saffron Burrows blabbing to therapist Glenne Headly about her crumbling marriage; and in the last, her husband, Stellan Skarsgard, the dissolute head of the company, stumbling into a meeting with his executives (among them the wonderful Holly Hunter, Xander Berkeley, and Steven Weber).
Sometimes the cameras end up in the same room, and the effect is surprisingly delightful—another angle on the same place! Characters in one frame talk via cell phone to characters in other frames. Tripplehorn plants a bug on Hayek, who has sex behind a movie screen with Skarsgard while her horrified lover listens. We’re in both places at once, and two others besides.
So why do we need four cameras? Can’t you just cut back and forth between Hayek and Skarsgard going at it and Tripplehorn listening in her limo with headphones? Sure. But somehow seeing it all without cuts at the exact same instant creates an element of danger that you don’t get in overprocessed modern movies—the kind where 33,000 of 35,000 coliseum dwellers are added in months later by computer. The joy on Tripplehorn’s face as she walks down the street at the end goes beyond mere acting. She has been through something, and her relief at having come out the other side is palpable. As the light on the four frames fades, you can almost hear the sighs and whoops and someone saying, “And now, it’s Miller time.”