Gladiator (United States, 2000)
Gladiator is the kind of movie upon which Hollywood once built its reputation but rarely produces anymore: the spectacle. Filled with larger-than-life characters, gorgeous scenery, impressive set design, and epic storytelling, Gladiator is designed not just to entertain, but to enthrall. It draws audiences in and immerses them in a reality that is not their own. A boisterous reaction is expected every time the protagonist defies the odds and wins a conflict, or changes the tide of battle in his favor. This is filmmaking on a grand scale.
Director Ridley Scott made his name in movies by helming two acknowledged science fiction classics: Alien and Blade Runner. Aside from those films, however, his resume is littered with mediocre and unpromising titles, such as his most recent outing, G.I. Jane. (Some argue that Scott returned to form with 1991's overrated Thelma and Louise, but that's not an opinion I share.) Gladiator represents the British-born filmmaker's second attempt at an historical epic, and is far more successful than his previous endeavor, the stultifying 1492: Conquest of Paradise, which recounted Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World.
Gladiator is set in 180 AD, and uses actual historical personages and events for background. The events that transpire in the film are largely fictional, but they blend in well with the known facts. The Roman Empire is in full blossom, having survived the excesses of one corrupt emperor after the next. The latest Caesar, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), is a scholar who has taken to the battlefield to repel a barbarian threat from Germania. To that end, he has invaded, relying upon the leadership and valor of his best general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), to win the day. Maximus does not disappoint, and the Emperor privately decides to name him a his successor - a decision that does not sit well with Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Marcus' son. In a fit of rage and grief, he kills his father, then has Maximus taken away to be executed. The general, however, escapes death, slaying his would-be killers, then races home to protect his wife and son. But he is too late - by the time he arrives, they are both dead, and he is soon taken prisoner by slave-traders. Along with his new friend Juba (Djimon Hounsou), he is bought by Proximo (Oliver Reed), an owner and trainer of Gladiators. Recognizing Maximus' potential, Proximo grooms him for a trip to Rome's Coliseum.
Gladiator weds the heroic scope of movies like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Braveheart, and Rob Roy with the serpentine political treachery of I, Claudius. (A connection that is italicized by the presence of Claudius lead, Derek Jacobi, in the supporting role of a Roman Senator.) The film never fails to be involving and entertaining, and there are plenty of moments designed to stir the adrenaline. Additionally, the screenplay manages to avoid the trap of predictability. The villains are at least as smart as the heroes, and far more ruthless.
For New Zealand-born, Australian-bred actor Russell Crowe, Gladiator represents an opportunity to expand his reputation, which was heightened earlier this year by a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand in Michael Mann's The Insider. This is Crowe's first opportunity to carry a big-budget motion picture. The role of Maximus requires more presence than acting skill, and Crowe proves equal to the task. From films as diverse as Proof, Romper Stomper, and The Insider, we know he can act. Gladiator shows that he can dominate the screen with a cold stare, a clenched jaw, and a sure gait - attributes normally reserved for the likes of action mega-stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
The supporting cast is comprised primarily of European notables. The exception is Joaquin Phoenix, whose Commodus is a conflicted-yet-detestable villain. Phoenix plays the character as a spoiled degenerate with effeminate mannerisms and huge appetites (historians mark the real Commodus as one of Rome's worst emperors). Yet, like a snake coiled and ready to strike, he is both unpredictable and dangerous. Connie Nielsen (who was one of the astronauts in Mission to Mars) is Commodus' sister, who was once Maximus' lover and whose 8-year old son is the current heir to Caesar's throne. Veteran actors Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, and Oliver Reed (in the final performance of a long career) all have significant screen time. And Djimon Hounsou, whose breakout role was as the lead in Amistad, plays Maximus' brother-in-captivity.
Perhaps Scott's greatest achievement with Gladiator is neither keeping the pacing of a 2 1/2 hour movie tight nor choreographing a spectacular battle scene, but creating a second-century Rome that is entirely credible and stunning in its detail. Ancient Rome is one of the most romanticized civilizations in the history of humanity, and rarely has it been brought to life with the grandeur of this film. The Coliseum, for example, has been resurrected to its full glory (largely through the use of digital technology). Gladiator consistently looks good, although, during some of the fights, rapid cutting creates a sense of disorientation and confusion.
One minor stumbling block for the film is an occasional tendency towards moments of pretension. One of Gladiator's themes is that power comes through controlling the mob. Successful gladiators are those who not only sate the crowd's desire for blood, but do so in an entertaining fashion. From time-to-time, a character will make a florid, preachy speech about this (or some other issue). We get snippets of dialogue like "The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it's the sand of the Coliseum." (Delivered by Jacobi, the line sounds positively Shakespearean.) There's nothing wrong with injecting social commentary about the bestial nature of human beings into a movie like Gladiator - my argument is that it should be more subtle. But that's a minor quibble.
Like many of the great Hollywood historical epics, Gladiator is the story of the triumph of a heroic figure over seemingly-insurmountable odds. In this case, he is a slave taking on the most powerful man in the world - the Emperor of Rome. The ending may be a unlikely (although, from Commodus' point-of-view, it could be a shrewd move if handled properly), but it is as exhilarating and satisfying as the final confrontation between Liam Neeson and Tim Roth in Rob Roy. As spectacles go, Gladiator has a great deal to recommend it. And, while the film has the ingredients to win over most audiences, it remains to be seen whether the marketing campaign and positive word-of-mouth will generate enough ticket sales for this cinematic combatant to remain strong when the field of early summer challengers becomes more difficult.
Gladiator (United States, 2000)
Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Richard Harris, Djimon Hounsou, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Tomas Arana, Derek Jacobi, Spencer Treat Clark
Screenplay: David H. Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Music: Hans Zimmer
U.S. Distributor: Dreamworks
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