It's ironic — in an Alanis Morissette kinda way — that a new breed of action hero should have been born of a film that harks back so resolutely to a past era. Not the era of ancient Rome as such, but of the Hollywood period epic which presided over the blockbuster pantheon from the days of silent cinema to the 1970s, when it was usurped by the more contemporary spectacles of blazing skyscrapers and overturned ocean liners.
Grand scale sci-fi and the FX revolution of the late 70s/early 80s effectively delivered the deathblow to the sword'n'sandal monolith. We can be grateful then that it was Scott, a director renowned for his majestic cinematic vision, who chose to breathe new life into the old war-horse. And what life it is.
After an initial period of uncertainty, Scott leapt aboard when he was shown a Victorian painting of two gladiators locked in mortal combat, the sunlight streaming into the arena and the vast crowd baying for blood. It's not hard to see what appealed to him: the intensity of the moment, the sweeping spectacle and the image itself, a portrait of a fantastically advanced society resplendent in cultural riches yet underpinned by obscene cruelty and recreational violence.
The opening battle scene, visceral, mud-spattered and drenched in blood, sets the tone. Hordes of extras crashing against each other in waves; agonising hand-to-hand combat; a deluge of flaming arrows and exploding fireballs turning the forest into a hellish conflagration; the noise and stench and chaos of the melee. And Scott puts us right in the thick of it. Brilliant use of Steadicam and stroboscopic editing give you a taste of military conflict from a time when to kill a man in battle meant standing close enough to feel his breath on your face.
The sequence is one of many stunning set pieces that punctuate the story of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Crowe), the star general of the Roman army who is betrayed by the Emperor Commodus, sold into slavery and forced to become a gladiator. Plotting revenge for the murder of his wife and child, he becomes a hero of the people, ultimately confronting his nemesis on the killing floor of the Colosseum. Originally the part of Maximus was earmarked for Antonio Banderas (that's why, presumably, he's Spanish). Banderas makes a lot of sense — he has the looks, the physicality and screen presence. But luckily, he bailed, leaving the way open for Crowe. Crowe has all the qualifications that Banderas has, but where Banderas' prowess as an action star is essentially cinematic (he looks good firing a handgun in slo-mo, basically), Crowe gives the impression that he genuinely is quite a bit harder than the average nail.
He is worlds away from the ludicrous, neo-narcissist musclemen of the 80s (Arnie, Sly et al) and doesn't fit comfortably into the mid 90s school of lithe pretty boys (Keanu, Nic Cage etc.) either. Instead, like the film itself, he's a throwback to the action stars of yesteryear. Kirk Douglas is, for several reasons, the obvious example: unconventionally handsome, athletic without being showy and, most importantly, as solid as a rock. (Douglas also played a gladiator in some film or other.) Crowe is not a big man, he certainly doesn't have a bodybuilder's physique, but in the fight scenes his victories are totally convincing, even when he's pitted against seemingly insuperable odds. The look in his eyes, wracked with pain, boiling with testosterone and burning with hate has a singular message: don't fucking mess.
The fights themselves are thrillingly orchestrated and again feature fractured, kinetic editing and dynamic camerawork. They are so exciting, in fact, particularly the one where Maximus fights the retired champion while snarling tigers hem them into the centre of the arena, you get the slightly uncomfortable feeling that the emotions they stir are not so very far removed from those experienced by the roaring crowd. Scott's Rome — part ancient metropolis, part modern Manhattan, part Speer's Nazi Berlin — are suitably awe-inspiring; Joaquin Phoenix enjoys himself immensely as the loopy Commodus and there's a host of fruity English thesps filling up the type of roles that were once the preserve of Jack Hawkins, Peter Ustinov and Larry Olivier.
David Hemmings is tremendous as the ringmaster Cassius, Richard Harris cuts the ham thick as Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Derek Jacobi (no stranger to a toga) is typically solid as a liberal senator. But of the character players it is, of course, Oliver Reed who leaves the most indelible impression. Reed died during the production, but his gruff, bravura performance as gladiator trainer Proximo is a fitting swansong and his final line of dialogue — "We mortals are but shadows and dust" — a hauntingly apt epitaph. That said, "You sold me queer giraffes!" is an even better one.
What filmmaker would not relish the challenge of rendering the dichotomy of Rome the enlightenment and discipline that conquered the world versus the cancerous corruption that destroyed it? And Scott, with Crowe, rise to the challenge with typical gusto
If only Peter Jackson hadn't come along and done a rather good trilogy of films, we might possibly be talking about the greatest film of the 21st Century so far. Its sweeping but simplistic heroic tale, crunching fight scenes, award-winning special effects, towering acting and soaring score set this film apart from all the pretenders that followed it. Ridley Scott single-handedly re-invented the epic genre with this story of a Roman solider who is betrayed, loses everything and is sold into slavery, only to fight his way back as a gladiator, all the while driven by vengeance for his murdered family.
Russell Crowe gives quite simply the performance of a lifetime as the Gladiator Maximus, one that deservedly won him Best Actor at the 2000 Academy Awards (although his performance in the following year's Beautiful Mind was arguably even better, even if it didn't win him his second consecutive Oscar), and provided a thinking woman's alternative to the likes of Pitt, Cruise and Clooney to swoon over. His gravely voice and impressive physique combine to give him a huge presence, which literally fills the screen. His dialogue is sparing, but his actions speak far louder, adding a stoic sadness to his vengeance-driven heroic character. Before Gladiator, Crowe was a good secondary actor; after Gladiator he was catapulted to the top of Hollywood's A-list, and remains there, thanks to this career-making performance proving him to be one of the finest actors of his generation.
Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic as the scheming and corrupt Emperor Commodus who betrays Maximus and has his family killed. He manages to be delightfully and totally evil without ever descending into the realms of pantomime villain, which is a tricky line to walk, and manages to avoid being overshadowed by Crowe's monumental performance.
The fight scenes are rousing and superbly choreographed, in particular a scene where Maximus marshals his fellow slaves into an army against marauding chariot archers in the Colosseum. The dialogue is kept simple and never overbearing (no need to worry why all of Europe speaks the same language) and culminates in one of the most memorable pieces of script that is destined to join the ranks of 'Play it Sam' and 'Are you talking' to me' as one of the most quoted (and misquoted) lines in movie history although it is rather wordy. But here it is, in full; 'My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius. Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true Emperor Marcus Aurelius; Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.' As Crowe turns to the Emperor in the arena and delivers this line, it proves to be one of the most electrifying moments in cinema history hairs will stand up, spines will tingle, guaranteed.
The action is set to some truly beautiful music, and it is shameful Hans Zimmer missed out on the Oscar for Best Score. Ridley Scott was similarly unlucky in the Director category.
The film is however tinged with sadness, as it proved to be the final (but triumphant) swansong for the careers of Oliver Reed and Richard Harris, both of whom died shortly after making this film. Neither could have delivered much finer performances, and if any performance had to be a final one, both delivered one worthy of such a status here. Reed in particular is a revelation, reminding older generations and showing a new generation of his considerable talent.
An inspiring film, rousing, exhilarating, exciting and moving. Superbly acted, directed, scored and visualised. A tribute to how great films could be once, and could be again.
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