GLADIATOR (2000) 

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Russell Crowe
Joaquin Phoenix
Connie Nielsen
Oliver Reed
Derek Jacobi
Djimon Hounsou
Richard Harris
David Schofield

Ridley Scott




Time: 154 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: Action/Drama/Romance

Won Academy Awards for Best Actor (Crowe), Costume Design, Sound, Visual Effects and Best Picture. Nominated in 7 other categories, including Best Director and Best Screenplay.

Now before you think that I've just jumped on the Russell Crowe bandwagon, I want to know I've been a fan of his for years. At least I heard of him before all the buzz regarding his performance in THE INSIDER, which was brilliant by the way. Of course, even if he was a complete unknown and GLADIATOR was his first movie, he'd be on top of the leading man list in a heartbeat after the studio execs watched this flick. Besides the fantastic art direction the only thing keeping your eyes on the screen is Crowe. He gives a subtle, powerful, honest portrayal in a film that wouldn't have been half as good without him. It's not an easy role to pull off and could have fallen into the realm of the ridiculous. No one has tried to make a roman costume epic since the late 60s and the debacle of CLEOPATRA. However, the actors and the filmmakers take their subject matter and characters very seriously, grounding the action in a time and a place one can only imagine. Actually, thanks to Mr. Scott and some amazing computer facts, we don't have to. Rome is alive and well, rearing it's ugly head at the cineplex.

Crowe stars as General Maximus a valiant warrior, fighting under the command of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome. Unfortunately, their latest battle to defeat the Germanic tribes will be Aurelius' last. He is old and dying, saddened by the legacy of war and politically polluted Rome he is leaving behind. His son Commodus is an unworthy leader, someone who will bring Rome further into moral decay. He asks Maximus, an honest man who wants nothing more than to return to his farm and family, to become Prefect of Rome, usurping the reign of Commodus and returning the city to its' rightful owners – the people. Before Maximus can give an answer, the Emperor is found dead and Commodus is declared the new Caeser. Maximus is soon in life-threatening danger from Commodus, a young man overcome with jealousy for the man his father wished was his son.

"He will bring them death, and they will love him for it."

Forced to fight for his life against men he once commanded, Maximus defeats them and races home to protect his wife and son only to arrive too late. With nothing left to live for, he lays down to die. Unfortunately, he's picked up and sold into slavery to Proximo, an old gladiator who trains and supplies slaves who fight and die in the name of entertainment. Maximus hides his identity and initially refuses to fight, but realizes that only by surviving can he exact his revenge on Commodus. With each battle he proves his might as a gladiator, bringing him closer and closer to Rome and his goal. After a particulary brilliant fight in the grand Roman coliseum, his true identity is discovered by Commodus who is enraged that he's still alive and continuing to thwart his dreams. Knowing her brother is an unfit leader, Lucilla convinces Maximus to work with her and Senator Gracchus to overthrow Commodus. Things don't go exactly as planned and Maximus is forced to fight Commodus in a duel to the death. It's a powerful fight sequence that will leave you breathless.

Due to the nature of the story, one should not be surprised at the nature and amount of violence. Though it is often times grotesque and graphic, most of it is shot in a way to convey what is happening without actually showing the worst parts. That being said there are plenty of decapitations, sword battles and blood to make the most bloodthirsty among us happy. Scott is a great action director and he puts his prodigious skills on parade, making every battle exciting and different. You would think there was only so much death and mayhem one could create with a sword, but the filmmakers make every thrust unique. The gladiator battles in the Coliseum are extremely impressive, especially the one with the chariots. The fight with the tigers was interesting, but I never really thought that Maximus was in danger from the big cats. Could be because there were men and chains holding them back. It would have been much more dangerous if they were free to do what they wanted.

Of course, the movie would be extremely lopsided if Maximus did not have a decent enemy to fight. Joaquin Phoenix gives a striking performance as the snotty, morally bankrupt Commodus. He's a spoiled child in an Emperor's body, who wants to be respected, but has never done a damn thing to deserve it. Everything Maximus stands for is a slap in the face to Commodus and Phoenix makes sure you see it in his eyes. I wasn't all that impressed with their final battle. Compared to the others it was kind of boring, since the outcome is pretty obvious. Connie Nielson also stands out as Lucilla, a woman trapped by her position, fighting loneliness and for survival every moment of every day. The other actors perform admirably, but their parts are fairly standard. The three leads bounce marvelously off one another, causing you to hold your breath waiting to see what comes next.

GLADIATOR is not a new story or an overly deep one, but it does entertain like nobody's business. There's a lot more range and depth to Russell Crowe than most Americans have seen up to this point. I, for one, look forward to watching him again and again.

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