Gladiator (2000) / Adventure-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for intense, graphic violence
Running Time: 155 min.
Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Neilsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson
Review published May 7, 2000
If there's a reason why professional wrestling has taken such an upswing in popularity of late, perhaps it's because Hollywood has lost its feel for pure testosterone-driven epic battles where the fates of an entire civilization is played out in the arena. Tapping into this vacuum comes Gladiator, which benefits from being one of the most unique films to be pushed as a summer blockbuster in some time.
Taking place in Ancient Rome, the emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris, Unforgiven), who served Rome honorably by expanding its borders through a series of successful war campaigns, wants his beloved empire to return once more to the people instead of to tyrants like he fears his son Commodus (Phoenix, 8MM) would be should he be given the throne. His plan is for his most respected general, Maximus Meridas (Crowe, The Insider), to head into Rome and protect it so that the Senate can rule the empire once more. These plans are thwarted by Commodus, who upon hearing his father's designs, murders him and takes his place as emperor before they can take form.
Maximus, who loves Rome as well as Aurelius, shows his disrespect for the new pretender and is sentenced to a grisly death. He escapes his fate, but not before his family is cruelly slaughtered. When Maximus is captured, he is enslaved and forced to serve a life as a gladiator. Maximus quickly becomes the greatest gladiator in the empire, and his popularity soon rivals that of emperor Commodus himself, whose very power comes from keeping the Roman people lulled with happiness, thus making it difficult to dispose of their new hero. Maximus vows revenge on the murderous and corrupt Commodus, but how can a lowly slave revenge the most powerful man in the world?
In many ways, Gladiator should be seen more as entertainment than as a historical drama. Director Ridley Scott (White Squall, Blade Runner) clearly is using Roman characters in order to provide the level of entertainment he seeks, and basically eschews any historical accuracy to properly the stage for his grandiose mano-a-mano battles for power.
In order to properly appreciate Gladiator, one should first resolve that the tale is purely a fantasy, although using actual people in history (with the most notable fictitious character being Maximus Meridas himself). The tale is set in Ancient Rome because it was a unique time in world history when almost the entire civilized world was under the power of one man. When you have that man attending a battle among slaves and determining their fates, the stage is then set for the kind of drama where the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance in the entertainment arena.
Gladiator is pure entertainment, and just like the real gladiator battles, it exists merely for the pleasure of the spectators. The audience to which this film targets aren't classical historians, but rather, the common folk, who care nothing about the real Commodus, but do want to see great fights, romance, intrigue and a good story. On this level, Gladiator succeeds as a film, even if all holds on accuracy are thrown out of the window.
Rousing battle scenes, quality actors, and the stylishly beautiful cinematography Scott has made a career out of, fill every frame of this supercharged melodrama. Close the history books, suspend that disbelief, and Gladiator will serve up the blood-and-guts entertainment you've been missing.
©2000 Vince Leo