We kick off a new column called ‘Movie Rehab’ with a look back at Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’

HitFix just quietly turned five years old.

The most remarkable part of that is the time frame in which we launched. We could not have picked a worse day for the site to go live. The financial meltdown was happening at the exact moment that we were attempting to start a brand-new media company, and if we’d failed, it would have made us just one more example of how the crisis impacted people.

Instead, we’ve slowly but surely carved out our own place online, and with each new voice we’ve added to the mix, HitFix has gotten stronger. For the last five years, I have been blessed by the opportunity to define my own blog by my own interests, and I feel like I’ve done some of my best work here. “Film Nerd 2.0” has taken on a life of its own, and I am enormously grateful to everyone who has not only read the columns but shared them.

The one thing I don’t think we’ve done as well as we could have is create a larger sense of community in the comments section. Sure, we’ve got several people who comment regularly, but what I’d really love to see is more conversation. That’s hard when we’re publishing a review of something that isn’t out yet because you guys aren’t able to weigh in at that point, and by the time the film is out, that review could be 20 articles back on the blog.

The only real way to grow an ongoing back-and-forth is to create something that is published regularly and that encourages your participation. To that end, I have three new columns that we’re going to be publishing this year, and I’ll be watching closely to see which ones you respond to the most. Not all three will necessarily make it to the end of 2014, but they could.

The first of these columns is “Movie Rehab,” and the mission statement for the series is pretty simple:

It is the responsibility of the working film critic to not only offer opinion and context for the newest releases, but also to constantly champion and curate the films that matter most to them, especially if they were misunderstood or poorly released or somehow handled badly the first time around.

Critics should take it upon themselves to rehabilitate the under-loved, to defend the wrongly-maligned, and rehab the films that need it; it is the only way film as a whole can be healthy.

Part of what I find interesting about the overall conversation about film is the way certain opinions become set in stone over time. How those opinions end up either positive or negative often has very little to do with the film itself, and it’s more about the conversation around the film. In the case of Ridley Scott’s film “Gladiator,” you’re talking about a movie that made buckets of cash and that won the Best Picture Oscar. Even so, I’d say that the film’s reputation today is severely tarnished, and more often than not, I see people dismiss the film.

I think it’s actually part of a larger conversation about Ridley Scott and his career as a whole. There are moments where he is treated as one of our elder statesmen of cinema, and times where he is treated like a guy who makes pretty pictures and little else and, depending on what film you’re talking about, I think both descriptions are true. At his best, Scott creates immersive, emotional experiences, but he has also proven himself to have a real tin ear for script at times. Those moments where he manages to pull everything together in exactly the right way, those are the moments that I think are worth studying, and “Gladiator” is one of those movies where he seemed positively possessed, incapable of a false move.

“Gladiator” represented a major jump forward for Russell Crowe, who Hollywood had been trying desperately to figure out. I remember seeing “Romper Stomper” for the first time almost a decade earlier and being sure at that point that Crowe was a movie star. They tried figuring it out in films like “Virtuosity” and “The Quick and the Dead,” but it didn’t really seem to click until he played Bud White in “LA Confidential.” Even after that, it still seemed hard to find something that fit him well. I like his work in “The Insider,” but I think that role could have been played by any number of lumpy white guys of a certain age. Not so with “Gladiator.” That role belonged to Crowe and Crowe alone. From the opening moments of the film as Maximus faces down the barbarian Pict hordes to his final encounter in the ring with Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Crowe projects the right mix of gravitas and vulnerability. And while I think Crowe’s performance is the spine that makes the whole movie work, the reason the movie is great is because of the work that Phoenix does.

Honestly, until I recently rewatched the film, I had started to let the constant dismissal of this film affect my opinion of it. I started to assume that I had been too enthusiastic when it first came out simply because it was nice to see an action film with some epic flair. Recently I set aside and evening and watched the movie on Blu-ray, and by the time it finished, I was genuinely angry at the way this film has been downgraded simply because it became a big hit that won awards. Once something is a Best Picture winner, it seems like it becomes essential for film nerds to take the opposite position. It’s just one of the many reasons the Oscars bug me fundamentally. More often than not, instead of serving to celebrate how many good things happen in a given year of film, the Oscars become a reason to argue, and they set good movies up to be more harshly judged simply because they’ve been anointed. As soon as you call something the “Best Picture,” someone will tie themselves in knots to prove it isn’t.

“Gladiator” is an enormously focused film, and part of what makes it work is that relentless sense of focus. Maximus is betrayed. Maximus wants revenge. Maximus kills everyone between him and Commodus. Something that simple sounds like it should be easy to get right, but that’s rarely the case. Commodus could easily just be a standard cookie-cutter bad guy, but the way Phoenix plays him is riveting. He is tortured, miserable in his own skin, and the scene he plays with Richard Harris early in the film where he ends up killing him has to be one of the finest moments Phoenix has had on film so far. The desire to prove yourself to your father is a natural one, but it is so corrupted, so twisted in Commodus, that even after he kills his father with his bare hands, he is still driven by that same need. Scene after scene, Phoenix plays his role as a raw nerve, laying fully exposed, just barely in control of himself. It’s harrowing work, and it makes him far more than just a cartoon bad guy. By the time he stands in the gladiator arena opposite Maximus, the two of them locked into a fight to the death, the stakes are entirely personal. I prefer that to the way most modern action movies feel like the stakes have to be the fate of the entire world every single time. That never feels as compelling, as necessary. In “Gladiator,” everything is personal, and it elevates this past being just about “good” and “bad.”

Looking at the way Scott used visual effects to bring the world of “Gladiator” to life, he wasn’t the first guy playing with the tools, but this was a pretty major step precisely because it’s not a fantasy or a science-fiction film. The movie feels like Scott was pushing his effects team right to the edge of what was possible in 2000, and he turns that bleeding-edge technical work into a stylistic choice. “Gladiator” doesn’t look entirely real, but it is the right kind of heightened reality. He uses it to marry his real locations to his sets, and he uses it to create scale that he couldn’t otherwise afford. This movie helped sell the idea of filmmaking on an epic scale to a new generation of filmmakers. We’ll never have another David Lean, able to mount a production the size of a small army all on real locations, but if filmmakers are smart about how they use the tools they have today, they can make films feel like they are still being made with that same level of ambition.

Most importantly, every single action sequence in the film plays a specific purpose, and they are each shot in a way that is very clear, visually laying out both geography and purpose so that the audience always has a clear sense of how the scenes play out. I am fed up with the modern trend towards shooting action in a way that obscures rather than revealing. Scott stages the giant battle at the beginning of the film with the same clarity that he shoots the individual battles in the arena. It feels like anyone who imitated “Gladiator,” and there has been plenty of that in the 13 years since it was released, took the wrong lessons from it. It would be easy to lay the blame at Scott’s feet for every movie since “Gladiator” that has featured frantically-shot action in front of green-screened backdrops, but looking at these action scenes, every single one plays out with a clear beginning, middle, and end. I wish more directors would take their cues from the great work Scott does here. It would mean we could actually follow the narrative of action scenes, something many directors seem dead set against at this point.

The other thing I want to single out here is the score by Hans Zimmer. Like many composers, there are ideas and themes and techniques that he re-uses from film to film, and there are times where it feels like he just cuts and pastes sections of his scores in new films. But when he’s on his game, Zimmer can create a powerful atmosphere, and “Gladiator” remains one of his best overall pieces of work. Combined with an editing rhythm that puts us into Maximus’s headspace, the score is grand and powerful and makes fantastic use of Lisa Gerrard’s voice. It’s interesting to note that it was a fairly controversial score with some because of how heavily it leans on electronic elements. I personally love it when what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing don’t exactly sync up. I don’t buy that movies have to be scored only with instruments that would have been available at the time. What matters to me is the emotion that the music conveys, and like the film itself, the soundtrack is deeply felt.

Very much a product of the moment when it was made, “Gladiator” definitely has some rough technical edges, but it remains engrossing because of the two central performances and because of the very simple shape of the story itself. It is pointless to debate if something did or didn’t “deserve” to be declared Best Picture, but it is equally pointless to simply run something down because it became enormously popular. “Gladiator” deserves to be revisited, and it remains a high point in terms of performance for both Crowe and Phoenix. It’s worth taking a look back at this one this year as Ridley Scott prepares his take on the Moses story with “Exodus” and Russell Crowe heeds God’s warning in “Noah.”

Every Monday, I’ll put up a new “Movie Rehab,” and at the end of the column, I’ll give you a heads-up about what film will be discussed the following week. Next Monday, we’re going to take a look at a movie that Warner Archive just recently released on Blu-ray, a film that seems to be almost completely overlooked these days, something that is doubly mystifying when you consider how beloved Jeff Bridges has become in pop culture.

I hope you’ll join me here on January 13th when we dig in for a discussion of Peter Weir’s “Fearless.”