Having won a brutal victory for Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) in Germania, Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) is betrayed and left for dead for when Marcus' son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), forcibly takes the throne away from his aging father. Maximus races home to find his wife and son tortured, raped and murdered, but in the aftermath he is scooped up by a traveling caravan and as a slave is sold to Proximo (Oliver Reed), the owner of a gladiator school in Zucchabar. At first wanting nothing to do with this life, Maximus realizes that with each win in the gladiator ring, he takes one step closer to meeting Commodus again, and for the general-turned-slave-turned gladiator, all he wants is one more shots at meeting the Roman emperor who took his life away from him.
If the story has a little bit of a scatter-brained quality, I apologize. That's more on me trying to condense a 155-minute movie into a paragraph synopsis. Fans of 1960s epics will no doubt recognize some of the story; it borrows somewhat liberally from 1964's The Fall of the Roman Empire and does use some real-life historical basis for its story. Some historical inaccuracies aside, director Ridley Scott has an epic gem here. It has the feel and look of an epic, and sometimes that alone can be enough. Is the portrayal of ancient Rome spot-on in terms of accuracy? No, not especially, the screenplay taking some liberties there. But traveling from the gloomy battlefields of Germania to the far-off desert communities of the Roman provinces to the glory and majesty of Rome, Scott gets it right in spite of any historical inaccuracies.
A respected and at least somewhat well known actor who'd been working in Hollywood for years, Russell Crowe became a household name courtesy of this movie and his starring role. Crowe won the Best Actor Oscar for his part as Maximus, the betrayed Roman general who must avenge his family's murder at all costs. It's appropriate that Crowe was chosen for the part because he has the star-power quality of a Charlton Heston or John Wayne. As an actor, he belongs in big, expansive epics where that star power can shine through. A story of an obsessed man looking for revenge can be tricky, but Crowe makes Maximus likable which sounds easy but is essential to the movie's success. He is an ultra-capable commander, a brutally effective and skilled warrior, and a stout and ready leader of men. Great lead performance.
Without the huge A-list supporting cast, Gladiator is probably a little better for it. The cast -- big names or not -- does not disappoint, the depth of the cast making up for any lack of star power. Phoenix is uncomfortably evil as Commodus, the power-hungry but ultimately insane Roman emperor. He sneers and glares as he scoops up power, wanting nothing more than an incestuous love from sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen in a very strong supporting part). My favorite character is Reed's Proximo, a former gladiator granted his freedom and now an owner of a gladiator school. A cynic looking for the biggest payday, Proximo sees that potential in Maximus -- dubbed the Spaniard in the gladiatorial ring -- but also starts to see more than that, sees there's good and bad, right and wrong, more than just money. Reed unfortunately died before production wrapped, but it is a scene-stealing performance. The same goes for Harris as Marcus, an aging, dying emperor looking to right wrongs he's done and save Rome from itself.
Beyond those key supporting roles are several more, a little more in the background but just as important. This was my first introduction to Djimon Hounsou who plays Juba, an African slave turned gladiator. He bonds with Maximus, both men having been violently separated from their families. Ralf Moeller is also very good as Haken, a bear of a man and a Germanic gladiator who sides with Maximus and Juba. Derek Jacobi plays Gracchus, a strong-willed member of the Senate who hates what Commodus has done to Rome, with David Schofield and John Shrapnel as other Senators of varying loyalty. Tomas Arana plays Quintus, Maximus' former second in command, with Tommy Flanagan playing Cicero, Maximus' aide in camp. David Hemmings also has a brief but memorable part as Cassius, the Colosseum's announcer.
With the epic story moving all over the Roman Empire, one thing rises above all others as I rewatched Gladiator recently, and that's the scale and blood-splattered quality of the action sequences. Oh, and there's plenty of them. In creating these sequences, Scott uses computer-generated images, but he never overdoes it. The opening battle in muddy Germania is a bloody, chaotic mess, the action then moving onto the equally bloody but beautifully photographed gladiatorial fights. The fights in the provinces are efficient and bloody, the scale more impressive once Maximus, Proximo and Co. reach Rome and the Colosseum. All of the action is aided by composer Hans Zimmer's score, everything you hope and want an epic musical score to be. Listen to a sample of a battle sequence music HERE. Action galore and on a gigantic scale, you should not be disappointed in that department.
The only thing I did come away somewhat disappointed on my recent viewing was the talky quality of the movie as Commodus takes power in Rome. Yes, they're necessary scenes to establish characters and motivation, but dialogue scenes of Rome, republic, the mob, and the Senate become a little tedious. Scott seems to know it too, never waiting too long to unleash another action sequence in our direction. That said, the last 45 minutes are nearly perfect, the pieces all falling into place for one final showdown. Epically dark and cynical as betrayals, backstabbing and murder rule the day, the last half-hour plus does not disappoint, helping make up for some of the slower portions building up to it. An epic and a great one at that. They're getting rarer these days so enjoy them as much as you can.
Gladiator <---trailer (2000): ****/****