I do not like to start reviews with the most obvious possible statement that hundreds of people before me have already pointed out, but sometimes it doesn't pay to be clever. And so: the 2000 ancient world epic Gladiator is quite clearly what you get when 1995's Braveheart and 1998's Saving Private Ryan have a baby. I would add to that standard version of the story, it's not a very smart baby, and it takes neither of its parents' strengths, and if I were them, I'd be awfully ashamed of it (and let's not mince words: neither Braveheart nor Saving Private Ryan are all that smart to begin with).

To be fair, the film's DNA includes other things as well. The whole corpus of 1950s and '60s sword & sandal epics, for example, a genre that produced many extraordinary spectacles and very few actually watchable films. Gladiator is by no means the worst of the bunch, though there are certain things that I would hope a filmmaker at the cusp of the 21st Century would be willing to do that a filmmaker in the heart of the Eisenhower years wouldn't and couldn't, and insofar as Gladiator is pretty violent (though so much less violent than either Braveheart or Saving Private Ryan that it seems hardly worth talking about it in those terms), it does so. However, the one thing I'd desperately want anybody dusting off the '50s Roman epics for a turn-of-the-millennium audience to avoid doing, this is done by director Ridley Scott, and the clusterfuck of writers (William Nicholson rewriting, generally at the last minute, a script that John Logan heavily revised from an original draft by David Franzoni). Namely, they treat it as something like very square, straight camp - the dialogue is lead-footed with Portent and Grammar Most Regal, the emotions are one note and heavily underlined, and this is all treated with not a molecule of humor. It's the stuff of melodrama played with an achingly straight face. Say whatever one will about Braveheart and director Mel Gibson's endless fascination with extreme masculinity, at least in that film he gets that you need big dollops of silly nonsense to help make the ashen-faced sincerity go down properly.

Scott, however, is a director not prone to dollops of silliness, nor even the occasional quip (I enter into evidence: 2006's A Good Year, one of the most aggressively anti-funny romantic comedies I have ever seen), and Gladiator is portentous and heavy even by his standards; the dialogue is so self-conscious about its own weight that, the story goes, star Russell Crowe flatly refused to deliver most of his lines, and simply re-wrote them to sound like something a human being would ever say. And since this was right about the exact all-time peak of Russell Crowe being important and powerful, he got to do that.

And this is the point where I say one of the handful of unabashedly enthusiastic things I have to say about a movie whose generally awe-inspiring reputation baffled me when I was an 18-year-old film geek and still baffles me to this very day: Crowe is terrific in the film, and comes powerfully close to salvaging the whole thing. The movie wants to be a passionate character study about a man driven to the edge when his family is butchered and finding himself again; the patchwork quilt of a screenplay keeps it from coming any closer to sort of indicating the sports where that character study could be filled in later. But Crowe brings a lot of gravitas to the role of disgraced 2nd Century Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius, a way of carrying his whole body around the knot in the pit of his stomach that makes it very clear, in the absence of plot materials, that the character is always obsessing over the savagery in his past, and all of his present decisions grow out of his past loss. He is, as mentioned, the only performer in the film who stays mostly free (say, 90% of the time, or more) from the dreary cod-Shakespeare of the dialogue and the general sense of glum tragedy.

Some members of the cast can make that work; Derek Jacobi basically spent his whole career there, and he effortlessly slides into the small role of a cagey politician, and Oliver Reed (who died during production, and had the last couple bits of his performance completed by some nightmarishly bad compositing of spare footage, wobbly CGI, and a voice impersonator) is so clearly animated by holding it together and proving he can be a good boy who doesn't get belligerent and drunk when on set that the tension in the actor's body matches with the overheated material of the story. Mostly, though, the actors are lost. Connie Nielsen gets the worst of it, stuck with the most incoherently-written part (she is a cunning politician, a decadent psychopath, or a scared mother doing what she most to survive in an impossible world, based only on which of those modes will make any given scene go), stuck with being the only woman of note in a film that could not possibly make it clearer that it has no interest in women, and the role completely swamps any sort of coping mechanisms she might have tried putting in place to retain some kind of legible personality. Joaquin Phoenix is up to something; I wholeheartedly despised his celebrated, star-making performance as the scheming emperor Commodus in 2000, though now I merely find that it is the wrong performance, not a bad performance. Phoenix (who was, apparently, openly terrified of being in a production this big in such an important role) plays the campy, over-the-top version of the movie that I wish the whole movie were; his performance would have fit seamlessly into the 2004 Oliver Stone film Alexander, for example, to name one of the most prominent of the many wannabe-Gladiators from the first half of the 2000s - and one that is unabashedly and obviously much worse than Scott's film while being, I think, unabashedly and obviously much more interesting, if only because of how fearlessly weird it is. The lip-smacking serpentine viciousness of Phoenix's performance (augmented considerably by the make-up department and their wise decision to slather him in eye shadow) is interesting. But it's operating at a perpendicular angle to literally everything else in the whole movie, and not in a way that succeeds in setting Commodus out as a freakish abberation. It just makes it seem like Phoenix wasn't getting any notes.

For all I know, he wasn't. Scott is nobody's first idea of a great director of actors, I'd imagine - it's not that he's bad at it, but it's rarely the main focus of his films, which are much more interested in carefully building a world from the ground up and creating amazing images to build up a generalised mood (even Thelma & Louise, the closest thing Scott has to a capital-G Great character story, is at least as much about soaking in the libertarian promise of the American Southwest as it is about Thelma and Louise themselves). Inasmuch as Gladiator is a violent action movie about finding hope in the midst of nihilism, set all around the Roman Empire of 180 CE - there's our world, and our mood - it's more effective than not. The film cost a lot, and you can see that in the hypertrophic sets and fancifully quasi-realistic costuming (Gladiator openly takes place in a mystical idea of Imperial Rome rather than an encyclopedic, historically accurate version of the empire at any one moment in time), which present a sense of richness and scale that makes this ancient world seem very imposing and grandiose indeed. Unfortunately, some of this grandiosity had to be achieved through CGI, which wasn't the best that money could buy in 2000, and has aged rather poorly. Since I can't stop myself from making constant Braveheart comparisons, I've got another one: that film, with its literal armies smacking into each other, is kind of the last old-school historical epic, while Gladiator, finishing up its crowds and sets with CGI, is the first new-school historical epic, and it just feels hollow - never more than in its mortifying final shot, which proudly rises above the Colosseum of Rome to offer a lingering view of the city that looks much too shiny and smooth.

Still, Scott has a well-trained eye, and he and cinematographer John Mathieson put together several bold, iconic shot of gladiators striking poses or simply standing against the imposing, massive architecture of the empire just beginning to decay. If the job of a historical epic is to give us rich, painterly snapshots of history as visual art object - and I am very happy to say that this is a big part of the job - then Gladiator undoubtedly does that. It does this, sadly, in the midst of some of Pietro Scalia's worst-ever editing, which perhaps deals with a complicated shot by atomising the footage, but there's never really a single place where it feels like shots move naturally into each other. This is, even more sadly, especially true of the action scenes, which try to combine the brutal force of Braveheart with the cutting-edge filming techniques of Private Ryan. And they do, on the level of individual shots. I am not sure it is a right choice to have made: the shutter-angle manipulation that gave Private Ryan its distinctive jerky, stuttering look feels of a piece with that film's portrayal of mechanised warfare, and with Steven Spielberg's stated goal of suggesting the artless chaos of vintage wartime documentary footage. Gladiator has no actual reason for copying this technique other than because it looks cool. Same with its elaborate color grading, which makes a world of implacable bronze humanity offset by the cool blues of nature - it's striking as hell, but if there's a consistent strategy for why this is done, I can't name it (I can think of at least a couple of inconsistent strategies, the most important of which sets up the film's admittedly effective finale, where Maximus is able to find his absolution).

And again, even if the unnecessarily aggressive visual style worked better, there'd still be the matter of this all being cut to ribbons. The action scenes are almost purely impressionistic: we see a movement here, a movement there, and if we can tell what's going on, it's mostly just because Hans Zimmer's thuggish bully of a score (liberally - very liberally - nabbing chunks from Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung and Gustav Holst's "Mars, the Bringer of War", enough so that the Holst Foundation unsuccessfully sued Zimmer for copyright infringement) guides us very minutely through everything we are meant to feel. For the record, Zimmer is joined in composing duties by Lisa Gerrard, who provides the score's ethereal vocal pieces, and these are very lovely and pensive and appropriately mournful. But Zimmer's contribution is like throwing a hurricane at a lemonade stand; it completely swamps the movie in rampaging bombast that adds yet a third distinct mode to the the stillborn melodrama and strained classical tragedy already at play.

I concede to the film's robust fanbase that Gladiator is, in general, a handsome film, and it is, in general, a rousing spectacle (despite routinely mouthing the idea that violent spectacle is a terrible thing), albeit one that has needlessly compromised the action scenes that ought to be its strongest selling point. Mostly, it just feels inert to me: too many stock characters working their way through too much boilerplate politicking of the sort that had been gumming up Roman epics since before Crowe was born. It's by no means a short film, and by no means a film that sees fit to spare us redundant scenes and redundant conversations. Just about the only thing that makes it look good is that literally every single film that was directly inspired by it is considerably worse, just like this is considerably worse than the films that directly inspired it. And I would, admittedly, probably watch this before most of the '50s movies it has in its DNA. But that's a sorry choice to have to make.