I just had to get that out of the way.
This is what the world needs more of; Russell Crowe chopping peoples heads off.
Sure it’s a 9 on the bloody scale (more gory than I expected… and I expected a lot), the ending stumbles a bit and overall it’s probably a teeny bit too long (150 minutes? Aren’t we supposed to save those running times for December?), but all in all this is a fine return to classic big scale, toga and sandal, "I-get-to-fight-the-lion" filmmaking.
I’m a fan of that style. But then again, isn’t everybody?
Russell Crowe is the star of this one and let’s just say he’s more than capable of bringing real value to the top billing. Unlike many of today’s current crop of leading men, Crowe has commanding screen presence and bolsters that rare commodity with equal parts intensity and talent. With Gladiator, Crowe brings all of this together perfectly and delivers a performance that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s one of the most complete actors working today.
Crowe plays Maximus, a celebrated general during end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius (played wonderfully by Richard Harris.) The film opens with what Maximus thinks will be his final battle, the killing stroke in Rome’s conquest of Germania. Upon the successful completion of his goal, the prospect of returning home becomes an immediate possibility and thoughts of his beloved wife and son begin to fill his mind. The aging Emperor, however, has other plans for Maximus. He wants this honorable, unspoiled-by-Roman politics leader of men to take over the reigns of power while Rome is restored to a true Republic. Maximus, a faithful, honest Roman, is caught between his love for the Stoic emperor and Rome itself, and his yearning to return to his wife, child and home…
Neither scenario comes to be however, as a helping of typical Roman treachery comes in the form of Commodus, the emperor’s son (played passably by Joaquin Phoenix.) I’ll save you a surprise or two, but let’s just say Maximus ends up on the short side of this exchange and soon finds himself being sold as a slave and then being trained as a gladiator. Which in turn, leads to a lot of people being killed and sets the stage for a little revenge…
There is much to be impressed with in this film. For starters, the cast is superb. Crowe, of course, steals the show, but all of the performances are solid. To be honest, for a big budget, "summer" movie it’s got few equals in that department. Even Joaquin Phoenix, a man who’s never much impressed me, manages to hold his own against a formidable cast. Running through the list, Richard Harris, and Connie Nielson (who plays Commodus’ sister Lucilla) especially stand out and watching Derek Jacobi in a toga rekindled fond memories of his brilliant turn as Claudius in the BBC adaptation of Robert Grave’s novel I,Claudius (ask me how many times I’ve seen that 12 hour extravaganza… the answer may frighten you…)
And then there’s Ridley Scott. As rich a visual director as exists today, Scott has turned in his best film in ten years (at least), and presents the spectacle that was Ancient Rome in brilliant fashion. Devoid of many of the characteristic genre elements, Scott parses out the romantic fluff and plays the brutality of Ancient Rome for all it’s worth. There are moments of rampant Hollywoodism (e.g., a Las Vegas style neon-signed allusion to "Bread and Circuses), but for the most part it’s a relatively intelligent, exciting, well paced examination of the culture that (along with the Greeks) spawned Western Civilization (that means us, by the way) as we know it.
Add to the above, rich cinematography, creative, assured editing, mind-numbingly grand production design and some breathtaking action pieces and Gladiator adds up to what will almost certainly be the summer’s best blockbuster.
This article was originally published in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in March 2001.