Sale of the Centurion 

New epic film doesn't quite deliver on its pretensions

New epic film doesn't quite deliver on its pretensions

Gladiator

dir. Ridley Scott

R, 150 min.

Now showing at area theaters

Gladiator combines two different kinds of epics, each alike in silliness. One is the sword-and-sandal tale (or ”peplum“), in which sweaty musclemen grapple and heave papier-mâché boulders at each other while fending off nubile princesses. The other type is the historical pageant; here, thousands of extras mill around on cavernous sets while the leads swap dialogue that sounds like a high-school Latin translation.

These distinct yarns have swapped threads before, most notably in Spartacus, which fused the hand-to-hand combat, sneering villainy, and king-sized heroics of the former with the Senate intrigue, kinky subtexts, and glimpses of ancient life in the latter. So there’s no reason why Gladiator, a power-packed entertainment machine loaded with a fine cast, a budget fit for a Caesar, and a lot of the same elements, shouldn’t be as exhilarating.

But it isn’t. Directed by Ridley Scott with all the lighthearted verve of his glum ”1984“ Apple commercials, Gladiator is more dreary and ponderous than it has any right to be. It comes alive in fits and starts, but it’s so grim and ugly that it tends to stifle the enjoyment you get from its sweaty theatrics.

Gladiator has an ideal lead in Russell Crowe, who projects a gruff, solid manliness that recalls the beefy screen stars of the 1950s, when these flicks were in vogue. Crowe plays Maximus, a Roman general who’s the clear successor to the dying emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris, ready to burst into ”Camelot“ at any moment). The emperor sees Maximus, a man of the soil who prefers family to the squabbling Senate, as the corrective to Rome’s corruption.

Unfortunately, the emperor’s mantle is seized by his jealous heir Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). The general’s wife and child are butchered, and Maximus ends up a Moroccan slave—where he’s purchased by the wily old gladiator procurer Proximo (the late Oliver Reed in delectably hammy form). The Vince McMahon of A.D. 180, Proximo cues Maximus in on a secret: To win freedom—and hence revenge—you have to win the crowd.

That faceless crowd, digitally pasted into the upper decks of a synthetically enhanced Colosseum, serves as our stand-in onscreen, and Scott treats them and us as an interchangeable batch of bloodthirsty yahoos. Given that Commodus has reinstated the games as a mass distraction, there’s a germ of satire in matching their bloodlust with our craving for action.

But Scott both panders to and flatters his contemporary audience, even as he denies us the pleasure of watching a cleanly staged fight scene. Most of the combat sequences are shot in a stroboscopic style that reduces the action to staggered blurs of blood and meat. That isn’t true of the sweeping attack that opens the movie, a masterfully orchestrated sequence that cuts among archers, foot soldiers, and barbarian hordes with rousing skill.

As the action shifts to the stadium, though, Scott hypes up the fights with fast cutting and jiggly close-ups. This technique can effectively convey the disorienting speed and scale of modern warfare, but when the fighting is between two guys lugging heavy swords and dodging occasional passes by a horse-drawn chariot, the whiplash cutting makes it impossible to share the gladiators’ sense of terror, elation, or exertion.

Fans of the genre like their gladiator flicks served overcooked, and Gladiator gets some of their conventions just right. (That doesn’t include the nubile-princess part—the guys get Connie Nielsen as Commodus’ sister, who swaddles herself in more gauzy cloth than Stevie Nicks.) Phoenix, though simpering broadly, gives his villain more dimensions than usual (i.e., two), which heightens his rivalry with Maximus. Their final battle, which takes place after a fiendish dirty trick, is truly exciting.

To get there, though, you have to sit through two-and-a-half hours padded with groaners, including the obligatory scene where Commodus leers about having Maximus’ wife violated before she was put to death. Even Scott’s renowned sense of place is dimmed by the weightless pervasiveness of the CGI work: You just have to compare the vividness of Blade Runner’s futuristic setting with the perfume-commercial panoramas of ancient Rome here. Gladiator isn’t awful, but it ain’t exactly a Roman holiday.

—Jim Ridley

Light, fantastic

When we think of pulp fiction, we tend to think of detective stories, Westerns, or two-fisted tales of blazing combat. But Harlequin romances are pulp fiction too. In the ’40s and ’50s, the comic book racks featured Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Young Romance right alongside their Boy’s Ranch and Captain America. The cheap thrills of plot-driven stories are integral to popular culture, and anyone who’s not too much of a snob to get off on Roman slaves bashing heads in Gladiator shouldn’t be too much of a snob to appreciate the struggles of young dancers in love in Center Stage.

Because, frankly, Center Stage is a delightful, straight-faced pulp romance—free of camp, irony, or operatic affectation. There are bad boys on motorcycles, envious ballerinas who don’t understand how hard it is to be the best, and stone-faced instructors who prove to have a soft heart after all. It’s essentially a film about youngsters driving themselves all day, and then pairing off at night for a different kind of dance—and yes, it is at times exactly as clichéd as the above description implies.

The film’s screenwriter, Carol Heikkinen, has fired this gun before, in her scripts for Empire Records and the Nashville-set The Thing Called Love. There’s really nothing different about the unrequited pining and artistic competition in Center Stage, but Heikkinen has two things going for her this time—director Nicholas Hytner and the dancing. Hytner comes from a theatrical background, and his feature film career has been marked by crisp, entertaining movies like The Madness of King George, The Crucible, and The Object of My Affection. His chief duties here are to coax engaging, understated performances from a cast comprised mostly of dancers, and to keep the keep the camera back when they dance, so that we can see their whole bodies and feel an appropriate sense of awe.

And these kids are fantastic. The only one who falls a little short, actually, is the lead, Amanda Schull, whose character Jody’s journey from promising duckling to accomplished swan stretches credulity (but no more than this genre requires). The other main women—Susan May Pratt as the seemingly perfect but deeply neurotic Maureen, and Zoe Saldana as Eva, the minority with a chip on her shoulder—have much more grace. Meanwhile, the leading men out-dance everybody. Sascha Radetsky’s sweet, harmless Charlie can soar, while Ethan Stiefel’s archetypal talented jerk, Cooper Nielsen, has the footwork to excuse his arrogance.

Let’s face it—it’s exciting to see people dance, onstage or onscreen. Movies with dancing are so rare these days that Center Stage will automatically have some cult cachet, regardless of how it does at the box office. Witness Dirty Dancing, Flashdance, The Turning Point, Simply Ballroom, and the artistic champ of the genre, The Red Shoes. So long as there are preteen girls and slumber parties, Center Stage will survive.

Even so, it’s unfortunate that in our society we tend to dismiss films like Center Stage as ”chick flicks“ and excuse beefed-up actioners like Gladiator by calling them ”guy movies.“ Not everybody likes romances, and not everybody likes bloodbaths, but the deep-rooted paternalism in this country affects how such films are ultimately viewed by the culture at large. Women will gather discreetly in groups to see movies like Center Stage—as if ashamed without knowing why—while guys will build Web sites to express their devotion to Gladiator (or Braveheart, or Highlander, or whatever the pulp battle flick of the year is).

But there’s no shame in liking Center Stage; it’s damned likable. Creaky at times, yes, but as in most pulp fiction—and as in Gladiator, surely—the hoariness is part of the film’s power. Center Stage is simple and satisfying...and when the young folks dance, it’s beautiful.

—Noel Murray

Latecomer

The sexy, squirrelly Danish comedy Mifune, directed by Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, concerns a Copenhagen businessman (Anders W. Berthelsen) who’s called away from his new bride to settle his father’s country estate. Once there, he gets swamped by farcical complications, ranging from a half-wit brother (Jesper Asholt) obsessed with Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune to a new housekeeper (High Fidelity’s Iben Hjejle) who’s actually a runaway prostitute.

Mifune is the third release made according to the Dogma 95 ”manifesto,“ a pact cofounded by Breaking the Waves director Lars von Trier that promotes a cinematic vow of chastity (natural lighting, hand-held cameras, no dubbed music, etc.). Too bad that vow doesn’t restrict the use of hand-me-down stereotypes and attitudes cribbed from dumb American movies—there’s even a juvenile delinquent who’s redeemed by country living. The Dogma restrictions at least give the movie a speed and spontaneity its stateside cousins lack, but the sitcom plotting undermines the supposedly revolutionary technique.

Still, Mifune deserves better than its treatment here. It actually opened last weekend at Green Hills, but a scheduling snafu kept the movie from being listed in any of Regal’s show times, rendering it essentially invisible. The movie may stick around another week, but it hadn’t showed up on our listings as of press time. If you’re one of the several people who called asking when it would play here, you should probably try to catch it by Thursday.

—Jim Ridley

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