Directed by Ridley Scott
Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Richard Harris, Djimon Hounsou, Spencer Treat Clark, Ralf Moeller.
2000 154 minutes
Rated: (for violence, blood, and mild sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 6, 2000.
Being trumpeted as the first big "event" picture of the summer of 2000, Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" is a robust, lumbering, often very exciting, extremely well-acted, and long, action-adventure, the first movie of its type to be set in Rome in over three decades. In fact, the film has been made on such an enormous scale (with a price tag of $103-million) that it's difficult not to be completely swept away in its high-style effectiveness and technical grandeur. Despite the sparkling presences of the film's three lead actors, as well as the many rousing battle set-pieces, "Gladiator" is a flawed motion picture, and one that, for all its flashiness, comes off as a mild disappointment. It is still a good film, but only marginally so, and easily could have been a great one.
Opening in 180 A.D., Maximus (Russell Crowe), an acclaimed Roman general, has sent his group of men into battle against the Germanics, in the final fight to defeat the empire's enemies. Set against the backdrop of the fog-induced, murky Bavarian forest, just as nightfall approaches, Maximus carries on his battle plan, and amidst the carnage, lives to see their victory. A much-loved and admired militarian who hasn't seen his wife and young son for two-and-a-half years, Maximus has become the sort of adopted son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), who offers him the chance to be the ruler of Rome when he passes away, despite the title expectancy going to his own flesh-and-blood son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix).
Once the cowardly Commodus discovers his father's decision, he promptly murders him and demands that Maximus and his family be executed at once. Following his escape and the discovery that his home has been burned down and his wife and son brutally murdered, Maximus is captured by slave traders and sent to the provinces to act as a gladiator for the citizens' entertainment. Known as "The Spaniard," he surprisingly manages to defeat everyone that steps in his way, and is, finally, sent back to Rome, where he must carry out his newly enslaved life. But Commodus, the new emperor of Rome who believes Maximus has long since been killed, does not know that the masked mystery man the crowds have been cheering for in the Coliseum, is the man he most despises.
Unlike most action-adventures, "Gladiator" has a heart, along with its visceral thrills, thus allowing the audience to not only get involved in the sword fights and battle scenes, but also in the fates of the major characters. It also strengthens its entire impact and adds dimension to a story that otherwise might have come off being ineffectual and thin-skinned.
As Maximus, 35-year-old Russell Crowe has once again made a 180-degree transformation from his Oscar-nominated last character, the 57-year-old Jeffrey Wigand in 1999's "The Insider." Toned, alluring, and exceptionally convincing, Crowe has created another largely memorable character, one that is not your typical action hero, but a man who seems real--who can get hurt and even killed, and is bound to not always be able to save the day, no matter how talented of a gladiator he is.
In his strongest role to date, Joaquin Phoenix, usually cast as punk or dense types (see 1995's "To Die For" and 1999's "8mm"), really gets to show off his acting chops, and is plausibly threatening and powerful as the scheming Commodus. As Commodus' sister, Lucilla, Connie Nielsen (2000's "Mission to Mars") is superb, managing to hold her own in each of her scenes, right down to her final one, which is a marvelous display of acting. The way she reacts in her last moments onscreen come off as strikingly genuine and real, and Nielsen unveils herself to be a talent worth watching.
The cinematography, by John Matheson, is sweeping and unforgettable, using the most out of its widescreen format. However, many sequences are overly dim and more than a little grimy looking. The brighter scenes, however, particularly the angelic ones set back at Maximus' home, as well as all of the scenes at the Coliseum, are dazzling in their visual glory. Also making an impression is the memorable music score, by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, perfectly capturing the feel of a Roman epic.
Where "Gladiator" loses some of its luster is in its overlong running time, which could have easily been nipped and tucked here and there without losing anything substantial with its characters or the story, at hand. Moreover, certain sections run on a little too long, and the fight scenes begin to grow repetitive by the final half-hour.
What ultimately saves "Gladiator," making it a film worth seeing, is the intensity and power of the climax, a tour de force fight to the death between Commodus and Maximus, with unforeseen results. It is moments like these that prove what a natural craftsman and possibly underrated filmmaker Ridley Scott (1982's "Blade Runner") is. "Gladiator" may be guilty of needless excess, but when it really works, it's an unadulterated adrenaline rush.
©2000 by Dustin Putman