Release Date: May 5th, 2000 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ridley Scott Actors: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, Tomas Arana, Tommy Flanagan
he Roman Empire was at the height of its power under the rule of the Caesars, commanding more than one-quarter of the world’s population. In the year 180 A.D., at the close of elderly Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ (Richard Harris) twelve-year campaign against the barbarian tribes in Germania, only one stronghold remains. Celebrated general Maximus (Russell Crowe) victoriously leads his army into combat, hoping to be released from service to finally journey back to his family (after nearly three years in the field). Aurelius’ immoral son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) anxiously awaits a succession announcement, scheming to amass power and take Rome away from unfavorable politicians. But the Emperor wants Maximus to become a regent and crush the corruption overcoming his domain, and to guide the Senate to rule Rome as a republic.
When Commodus learns of Aurelius’ plans, he flies into a trembling rage and smothers his father. Usurping command, he sentences Maximus to be killed. But the general’s skills surpass those of his praetorian executioners and he escapes to his farm, where he discovers that his family has been murdered. After he collapses from despair, exhaustion, and blood loss, he awakes to realize that he’s been captured and sold into slavery in the Roman province of Zucchabar. Purchaser Proximo (Oliver Reed) takes the new stock to train as gladiators for profit in arena entertainment, where Maximus reinvents himself as a crowd-winning dealer of death and destruction against armed combatants in brutal fights to the death.
It begins with a thunderous, fiery, large-scale battle with falling snow, mud kicking up onto soldiers, and blood splattering across steel. Intimidating armory and comprehensive costuming embellish the conflict. From here, the action only becomes more exhilarating as the titular warrior lays waste to his opponents in thrillingly choreographed skirmishes (not entirely removed from the outrageousness of “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”). With breathtaking showdowns and nerve-wracking standoffs, it’s peculiar that slow-motion and time lapse editing aren’t used to generate grandiose variations of awesome dueling, but rather to attempt poignancy, reflection, and even to dampen bloodshed. The bookending of symbolic imagery, however, has a genuinely moving affect.
While some of the sets have the look of “Ben-Hur” or “Spartacus,” “Gladiator” is a vastly updated take on ancient barbarism clashing with politics, betrayal, and vengeance. It’s more highly detailed, visceral, violent, and visually breathtaking – chiefly through the meticulous reconstruction of the Coliseum and the elaborate spectacles orchestrated within. There are indeed iconic chariots, but the basic racing has been replaced with graphic hostilities. Nevertheless, the sensational carriage stunts are intact, as are the uprisings, anticipatory revenge, and hierarchy of memorable villains (leading up to the treacherous, sniveling, cowardly Commodus – a chilling performance by Phoenix – instead of a typical, physically daunting antagonist). Outside of the impressive design, “Gladiator” wisely includes rousing themes of defying authority, sacrifice, championing honorable notions of justness, and emboldening larger-than-life heroism. And, in the end, to preserve emotional and cinematic resonance, the film relinquishes the build of an epic revolution (and the intensity of two-sword beheadings or maddened tigers) for a decidedly more focused, intimate satisfaction and tragedy.
– Mike Massie