Director(s): Ridley Scott
Writer(s): David H. Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson
Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Richard Harris, Djimon Hounsou, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi and Spencer Treat Clark
Reviewed by: Ian Evans on
Release Date(s)May 5, 2000 - Wide
I’ve always loved studying Roman history and since the last movie I saw with togas was probably set in a frat house, I headed off to see Gladiator with much anticipation. The opening battle scene with the legions fighting tribesmen in Germania does for the accurate depiction of Roman-era battles what Saving Private Ryan did for WWII.
The battle is part of Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ efforts to bring some peace and stability to the empire. He puts his faith in the tactics and leadership of the Spanish general Maximus (Russell Crowe), who commands his troops with a skill and ferocity matched only by his desire to return home to his wife, son and family farm.
After the battle is won, the Emperor (Richard Harris) decides that Maximus is just the man needed to return Rome to the rule of the Senate and away from its Imperial debauchery. This decision does not sit well with the Emperor’s son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who realizing that a) I won’t become Emperor and b) Daddy loves this general more than he ever loved me, kills his father before the decision is announced. He subsequently orders that Maximus should be executed and also sends troops off to kill his wife and son.
Maximus manages to escape but doesn’t make it home in time to save his family. He’s captured by slave traders and sold to gladiator owner Proximo, played by Oliver Reed. Maximus and his new friend Juba (Amistad’s Djimon Hounsou) are trained by Proximo to fight in Rome’s Coliseum, which gives Maximus his opportunity to settle the score for the murder of his family and beloved Emperor.
Gladiator is directed on a grand scale by Ridley Scott and owes more to his work on Alien and Blade Runner rather than G.I. Jane and 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Ridley’s Rome is a dirty, gritty one and also shows the grand scale of a civilization that created paved roads, aqueducts and giant municipal structures like the Coliseum. His battles and fights sometimes rely a little too much on quick editing. This does lessen the gore a little (was that a hand or a head that just flew by?) but also leaves you slightly dazed as you see characters die but wonder who exactly killed them.
The Coliseum is a marvel of computer-generated graphics and really adds to the grandeur of Rome. Sure at times it looks computer-generated (as did the boat in Titanic) but let’s give the filmmakers a break here. The technology is changing rapidly, it still looks better than no Coliseum, and how many films did we used to sit through where the Romans were obviously on a set with a painted backdrop? So don’t stare at it too closely and enjoy.
Russell Crowe, fresh off his multi-nominated performance in The Insider carries the weight of this epic toga party on his shoulders. His Maximus is a stoic, moral man and he performs the required physical acts skillfully. Though it really is more of an action role, when the scenes slow down we’re confident that Crowe will act circles around the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, who could have been cast in this role a few years back.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Commodus (who historically was a pretty twisted individual) with the right amount of cruelty and fear. Connie Nielsen plays Commodus’ sister, Lucilla, a woman conflicted between her own ambitions and the need to protect her son. The supporting cast of Senators and soldiers are played by the usual group of Brits, including Derek Jacobi. I’m sure there’s a segment of the audience that truly believes the Romans all spoke like classically trained British actors, especially after seeing mini-series like I, Claudius and Masada. Apparently Crowe wanted his Spanish-born general to speak with a Spanish accent, but had to go with the flow when faced with the accents of Jacobi, Harris and Reed (who died during production).
Gladiator is a spectacle just like the shows they watched in the Coliseum. What it sometimes lacks in subtlety it makes up for in its time-tested hero against the odds action. The audience cheers at the good guys and hisses at the bad guys. After all, this is a summer film not a PBS show.