Category Archives: Now Showing

HELD UP

Grade: D-

A skunk is featured in one of the sequences of this vehicle forTV comic Jamie Foxx. It’s not a prominent part, but the little
critter’s influence can be felt throughout this stinker, a
stillborn, stagebound piece about a hip Chicago dude who gets
stranded at an isolated Arizona convenience store and becomes
a hostage during a failed robbery attempt. Most of the picture
is a tediously claustrophobic account of the supposedly comic
siege of the place by a lovably redneck sheriff (Barry Corbin)
and his hapless deputies (one of whom is a surprisingly
restrained Jake Busey); we’re supposed to chortle over Foxx’s
antic interaction with the gunman (Eduardo Yanez) as well as
with the other hostages–the store owner (John Cullum), a
stoic biker (Michael Shamus Wiles), and a local bride-to-be
(Sarah Paulson), but even the comedian’s most frantic efforts
can’t salvage the flimsy material. Toward the close the
script turns sentimental and sappy as the would-be robber’s
motives are revealed (leading to a “Russians Are Coming” sort
of happy denouement) and Foxx must rush to catch up with the
fiance (Nia Long) who’d abandoned him at the store in response
to his fiscally irresponsible ways.

Foxx is certainly an amiable presence, and his frentic, wise-
cracking persona could become a real hit on the big screen. But
“Held Up” provides him with little beyond a set-up; it’s
conceivable that something amusing could have been whipped up
around the notion of a small-town hostage crisis in which an
out-of-his-element city dude was involved, but the episodes
concocted by Jeff Eastin here are so limp and stale that the
performers appear to have been forced into desperate and
decidedly unfunny improvisation. To make matters worse, Steve
Rash’s direction lets everything plod on sluggishly; despite
occasional bursts of gunfire, the air of laid-back placidity
makes the whole film overwhelmingly soporific.

Fans of “Northern Exposure” might find it pleasant to see
Barry Corbin and John Cullum together again, but while both
men try to add a bit of the old series’ whimsy to their roles,
it’s a losing battle. It might be Foxx who’s the hostage in
“Held Up,” but by the time the static, feeble movie crawls to a
close it’s the audience that will feel trapped.

GLADIATOR

Grade: B-

The first big sword-and-toga epic produced in three-and-a-half
decades, Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” is a hybrid, a transplant
of the soul of “Spartacus” into the corpse of Samuel Bronston’s
last elephantine spectacle, 1964’s “The Fall of the Roman
Empire.” But as in so many such cases the operation doesn’t
entirely take. In terms of physical action, the result is quite
splendid: a prolonged opening battle sequence depicting the
final assault of the legions against their Danubian foes in A.D.
180 is a wonderful set-piece, full of cascading fireballs and
slashing blades; and later sequences of hand-to-hand combat
in the arena have a visceral excitement that’s hard to resist,
along with lots of dismemberments and bouts of bloodletting
(even if the man-tiger element of one sequence is too clearly
computer-manipulated). The recreation of the ancient city of
Rome, too, shows the potentialities of graphic imaging in
fashioning locations it would be far too expensive to construct
for real (even though, to be perfectly honest, some of the
structures look plastic and fake) and in providing huge crowds
one couldn’t assemble nowadays. Pictorially the film is often
quite impressive, then, even if the remaining deficiencies in
technique still make one yearn for the days when studios could
pull of this sort of massive opulence by actually constructing
huge sets and employing literal armies of extras.

In terms of story, however, “Gladiator” depends far too heavily
(or slavishly, if you will) on its two obvious ancestors. The
basic plot is the same as that of “The Fall of the Roman
Empire,” concentrating on the seizure of the throne by dastardly
Commodus from his much-beloved father Marcus Aurelius and a
plot against the vicious new ruler on the part of his sister
Lucilla and a cooperative champion (in the earlier film a
general named Livius, and in this case one called Maximus, both
thoroughly fictional). And in both cases the tale ends with
a fight to the finish between the emperor and the hero, very
similarly staged.

What the script for “Gladiator” does, however, is to transpose
a good deal of “Spartacus” into the tale by having Maximus,
doomed to execution by Commodus, become a gladiator, so
gaining the crowd’s support in the Colosseum that he weakens
the emperor’s popularity and threatens his hold on power. It
even assigns the role of the chief political opponent to
Commodus to a senator named Gracchus (a fellow of the same
name opposed Crassus in “Spartacus”), even though in the
context of the late second century it’s even more anachronistic
than it was in the first century B.C.

Now it might be objected, and quite rightly, that the “history”
here is complete malarkey (Commodus had been named emperor
long before Marcus Aurelius’ death, for example), and even
the topography is a mess (we’re asked to believe that after
escaping Commodus’ henchmen Maximus actually makes it back
to his, presumably Italian, farm from the Danube to find the
bodies of his butchered wife and son, but is then captured
and transported to a gladiatorial school in what’s apparently
North Africa!) But such cavils, though justified, aren’t
really pertinent; stretching the historical record doesn’t
necessarily make for a bad film.

No, the real problem is the obvious dependence on previous
models, since in virtually every case comparisons are not
to the advantage of the new film. Consider, for example, the
cast. Richard Harris makes a noble, human Marcus Aurelius, but
he’s still completely outclassed by Alec Guinness, whose
ethereal, vaguely quizzical turn in Anthony Mann’s “Empire”
was perfect. Similarly, Nielsen is a statuesque Lucilla, but
she can’t compete with Mann’s lustrous Sophia Loren. Nor
can Phoenix, for all his Jay Robinson-like quivering, quite
overcome the memory of Christopher Plummer’s preening Commodus.
And to draw comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s slave-revolt epic,
the late Oliver Reed may be amusingly venal as the master of
Maximus’ gladiatorial school, but he still can’t hold a candle
to Peter Ustinov’s unassailably brilliant like turn in
“Spartacus.” Nor does Derek Jacobi’s prissy, buttoned-down
Gracchus begin to match Charles Laughton’s witty, rumpled
performance as a similarly-named senator.

Mention of the delightful Ustinov and Laughton (they managed
a verbal soft-shoe routine that’s quite incomparable) points up
another major flaw in “Gladiator”–its singular lack of humor.
Its revenge plot lumbers grimly on for two-and-a-hours without
the slightest hint of shading or respite; everything is played
at the same tone and speed, making for an increasingly
tedious experience. (The few would-be laughs are of the crude
John Fordish macho variety, and they’re hardly welcome.)

That problem especially infects Russell Crowe’s title
performance. Crowe is, of course, a fine actor, easily
eclipsing the wooden hero limned by Stephen Boyd in “Empire,”
and technically he’s certainly capable of greater range and
breadth than Kirk Douglas, who starred as Spartacus. But the
restrictions of the script and Scott’s heavy direction confine
him overmuch here; he’s impressive in the action sequences, to
be sure (so was Douglas), but elsewhere he’s forced to rein in
his emotions to such an extent that he seems strangely
pallid and withdrawn. His blank face and intense stare
are presumably meant to convey his inner torment and drive,
but all they get across is emptiness and generalized rage;
Maximus becomes far more the stock figure than he ought to
have been. (It doesn’t help, of course, that he’s forced to
direct most of his displays of emotion to little wooden dolls
representing his late wife and son; unlike Douglas, he
doesn’t have the opportunity to play against Jean Simmobs in
sweetly romantic scenes that could soften and refine the
character.)

In sum, “Gladiator” may not be the equal of the memorable
Roman Empire epics of the distant past, to two of which it owes
entirely too much of the story it tells, but it’s sufficiently
grandiose and sporadically exciting to hold a viewer’s attention
through its duller stretches. And we might, finally, note
that it continues a sort of leitmotif common to Ridley Scott’s
movies in using smoldering embers, candles, desert dust and
oil lamps to fill the frame with smoke as frequently as
possible. It’s somehow comforting to know that the director’s
devotion to cinematic haze continues unabated.