There are so many aspects which make Gladiator the engaging, exciting epic that it is. For starters you have a compelling hero and a dastardly villain. Secondly is the the story, which plays deeper than a simple revenge tale. Lastly, you have the action sequences and amazing set-pieces, which make perfect use of the Roman setting.
If we begin with the first positive, then it all hinges on the perfect lead. Russell Crowe brings the audience into his character from the outset; rooting for the reluctant Roman general who leads his men into battles using using speeches but cut-throat kills as well. There is a charm which isn’t too arrogant and a likeability which means when his character is betrayed by the jealous would-be emperor, you feel it so much more and are behind his route to revenge with passion. Everything about Crowe’s Maximus is introduced right at the beginning, which means we know he is going to want revenge for his country and his family, but also has the determination and most importantly, the skills to get it.
Of course, any revenge movie is only as good as the villain that you are rooting against and as well as being an early role for Crowe, we also get an early look at the acting skills which would propel Joaquin Phoenix to the top. He is slimy, immature, calculating but petulant. His Emperor Commodus is one which rules with fear by terrifying those close, while all at once being a coward. He isn’t a pantomime villain, although you’ll feel like booing and hissing when he is on-screen.
Phoenix also has great chemistry with Crowe. The two are perfectly matched by being so completely opposite to the other. The few scenes they meet are so well written, tense and full of palpable action that you ae willing for Crowe to get his deserved revenge.
Revenge isn’t all this film is about though. If it were a simple Roman-set revenge story, it would still be a success, but there is added depth here. There are comments on politics and the birth of Republic over Empire. Hints towards the bloodthirst that people herald as “entertainment” (in one of two of the movie’s most quoted lines) but also legacy, delivered most poignantly by the story-arc of Oliver Reed’s Gladiator owning Proximo, made even more effective as Reed had died during the filming.
If all of this makes the movie seem dense, its anything but. The balance between story and action is well-realised and director Ridley Scott puts together some fantastic set-pieces. From the opening battle, which highlights the blood-spilling early, through to two very well-staged and exhilarating Gladiator battles which if not offering historical realism, do feel like you’re watching what the Romans would have thousands of years ago. Even the finale, although smaller compared to the rest of the action sequences, is edge-of-your-seat and a testament to how well the movie has built your investment in the central characters.
Overall, Gladiator is the sort of Hollywood blockbuster they don’t make anymore. It has heart, deep plotting but also very cool action. Crowe is a perfect hero and well-matched by the villainous Phoenix. There is brutal action but also moments of emotion which make you root for the characters. A modern masterpiece.
Rating – 5!
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)
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