At long last – a new movie review. It may be
telling that Gladiator is the first movie of 2000 that I had to
see opening weekend. It’s the firs tof the summer blockbusters, certainly – soon
to face serious competition from Scientologist founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield
, which I’m not particularly keen on, and then Mission Impossible 2,
which I’ve been waiting forever for. But I think Gladiator will beat out Mission
Impossible 2
for me, hands down. MI:2 will doubtlessly be your usual
testerone-charged double-gun John Woo blast factory, whereas Gladiator is
a well-made testerone-charged Ridley Scott heroic myth.  

The comparisons people have made to Braveheart are
well-founded. Both of these films center around a single hero who finds himself
at the mercy of powerful authoritative forces, and must use his combative wits
to fight his way out of each tough situation. Like Braveheart, Gladiator
is a "guy movie" with heart, one that women can go to and enjoy,
perhaps not as much as men (and certainly not for the same reasons), but at
least they won’t be bored. And if the women happen to enjoy gory
gladitorial combat, all the better.

Gore there is, and plenty of it, but don’t let that stop you
from seeing it. Braveheart had its share of gore as well, though perhaps
not so stylishly. For many of the fight scenes, Scott employs the same
high-speed, highly-detailed frames that Spielberg employed (for very different
reasons) in Saving Private Ryan. Other scenes blend realistic CGI
elements so seamlessly that your breath will be taken away as you watch a real
tiger leap upon a man.

At first, the plot seems at once complex yet familiar (warning:
some plot spoilers ahead
): the year is 180 AD. Roman Emperor Marcus
Aurelius (Richard Harris)
is finishing up a long series of invasions to capture territory in Germania. In
one final battle, Aurelius’ best general, Maximus (Russell
), succeeds in crushing the Germanic tribe that opposes them. Aurelius’
son, Commodus (Joaquin
), arrives just in time to miss the battle. Aurelius, fearing the
effects of an overly ambitious and foolhardy Commodus as the emperor of Rome,
asks Maximus in private to be his successor. But before Maximus agrees, Aurelius

"dies," and Commodus declares himself emperor and jealously orders
Maximus executed and his family killed (this all occurs in the first twenty
minutes of the film). In a brutally violent sequence, Maximus escapes and heads
to Rome to try and save his family; but on the way, he is captured and sold into
slavery, eventually winding up as a gladiator.

I have to admit, I was skeptical about Crowe. His performance
in L.A. Confidential had been written rather over-the-top, so it was
difficult to determine just how good an actor he could be from that; his role as
the insane computer villain in Virtuosity suffered from the same problem.
I suppose his Oscar(NO copyright symbol, you Big Brother bastards!)
nomination for his performance in The Insider should have tipped me off,
but I haven’t seen that film yet. But in this film, Crowe gives a fine
performance for the macho-hero role he is given. In portraying Maximus, Crowe
finds the right balance of the simple farmer who is cursed with being the finest
killing machine – and military strategist – ever created.  The true emotion
Crowe brings to the role – the sad smile whenever Maximus thinks of his family –
saves the film from being "Mad Maximus" – a Roman version of Crowe’s
fellow Australian Mel Gibson’s breakout film. I was quite pleased; often, what
might have been a good movie is ruined by its human-tree-stump lead actor (The
, anyone?). 

There are other very strong performances in the film. Djimon
(Amistad) is excellent as the fellow slave who befriends
Maximus as the two of them rise in the gladiator ranks; Harris gives the right
touch to the aging Maximus. Derek
(Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, Love is the Devil), always a
delight, seems to have had his role as Gracchus, a Roman senator, tailor-made
for him. Connie Nielsen (Rushmore,
Mission to Mars
), as Emperor Commodus’ sister, hits a few wrong notes, but
that’s mostly due to the script’s frequent ambiguity as to where her true
loyalties lie; they seem to fluctuate too often, and ultimately it weakens the
character. But Joaquin Phoenix, as the sickly and transparently evil Commodus,
is saddled with the most one-dimensional of the characters, and unfortunately he
is unable to rise above it.

The plot becomes more and more simple as the film goes on,
and the battles become longer and longer. While the battles are occasionally
drawn-out, they are nonetheless fascinating to watch. I found it ironic that
every time Crowe’s Maximus sliced off an arm or a head, the audience I attended
the film with would applaud and cheer – just like audiences did at the live
events 2000 years ago. While the movie is better than that – a lot better – it’s
nonetheless an element that cannot be ignored. 

Comments are closed.