Play time: 2h 35min
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriters: David Franzoni
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen
A Breathtaking Movie – Gladiator
It must have been a hell of a gamble. Making a $100 million Roman epic, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades, with no automatic-draw stars and few merchandising opportunities is hardly a sure bet but one that seems to be paying off mightily. Gladiator, a breathtaking trip through the 180 A.D. Roman Empire, is a rarity: an unabashedly grandiose production with one major priority: entertainment. If there is any subtext or moral in the film, it is purely secondary. This is a big, all-stops-out blockbuster and it delivers.
Opening Scene, Cast & Synopsis with Takeaways
The film opens with a battle scene rivaling the notorious invasion sequence at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan in scope. Maximus (Russel Crowe) is a general leading great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s army in a fight to put down a widespread rebellion. The cunning Maximus wins easily. After the battle, Aurelius calls Maximus into his chambers. Knowing that his time on Earth is coming to an end, the old Emperor gives the throne to Maximus. The two are not related, but they love each other like brothers and Aurelius truly believes that this general will do the best job as ruler of the vast empire.
The news doesn’t please Aurelius’s son Commodus (the unrecognizable Joaquin Phoenix). The corrupt, power-hungry prince is outraged at his father’s betrayal and kills him before he can officially announce his successor. He then sends Maximus off to be executed. Unbeknownst to Commodus, Maximus escapes but thinking that he is dead, Commodus kills his family. After finding this out, the injured Maximus collapses on the ground. He is discovered by slave traders and sold to Proximo (Oliver Reed), an organizer of gladiator matches.
Maximus The Gladiator, Wins Over Crowd’s Heart
So Maximus is forced to participate in these cruel, lurid battles to the death. He quickly wins over the audience and becomes the most popular gladiator around. When the action unexpectedly shifts from a small “suburban” arena to the big kahuna itself — the Collosseum in Rome — a showdown between Maximus and the corrupt Commodus, against whom Maximus has vowed revenge, seems inevitable. Commodus’s sister (Connie Nielsen) offers Maximus her services in helping destroy her malevolent brother.
Ridley Scott, is an extremely skilled technical and visual director and he knows exactly what he is doing. The aforementioned opening scene is heart-stopping: fast and furious but also riveting and suspenseful. There is so much going on but Scott presents it so well that not only do we understand what’s going on but our eyes are glued to the screen. It’s an excellent hook, grabbing my attention from the word go.
Crowe Gets into Shape For His Part as Maximus
In later scenes, Scott shows a penchant for taking bloody, often gruesome scenes and turning them into crowd pleasers. This may not be the most moral approach to a film like this, but damned if it wasn’t fun — and when Crowe, after brutally dismembering a rival, asks the cheering stadium audience if they’ve been entertained, we feel a quick twinge of shame because we realize that we’ve just been entertained by the exact same thing. Gladiator somehow strikes a balance, keeping the moralizing minimal enough so that we can still enjoy the rest of the action and not feel too guilty about it. This is a movie that has its priorities straight.
Russel Crowe, undergoing an unbelievable transformation from a chunky tobacco Insider to a beefy Gladiator, is quickly proving himself to be an amazingly versatile actor. There is not a trace here of the Russel Crowe we’ve seen before. It’s a whole new role and it seems like a whole new actor. I could hardly believe my eyes.
Joaquin Phoenix, too, is utterly convincing as the villain: his Commodus is powerful and formidable on the outside but always with an undertone of weakness and helplessness. As the bad guy, he’s easy to hate but we feel a little sorry for the guy, too. It’s obvious that he got himself in way over his head, he just doesn’t know it.
Gladiator’s Script has Flaws, But Ridley Scott Outperforms Himself
The script, by David Franzoni (Amistad) and John Logan (Bats, believe it or not) is not completely without flaws. The ending seems too eager to set up a grandiose showdown between the protagonist and the villain and is also the only major historical inaccuracy in ways I won’t reveal. It has the intended emotional effect on the audience, but looking back it’s probably the only part of the film which I found implausible. It works a bit too hard, contrives a little too much to get a strong reaction.
Gladiator presents us with a man forced to be a superhero. He wants to avenge his family’s wrongful death and in the process kills a lot of people and becomes famous throughout Rome. Kids idolize him, crowds worship him and why? Because he can kill. And don’t we look for characters who can kill when we choose which summer blockbuster to see? Gladiator‘s biggest achievment is that it doesn’t put a guilt trip on us. It’s tremendously entertaining but not hypocritical. You can take or leave the message. For many, I’m sure, the movie will just be a rollicking good time. And that’s okay.