When Maximus, a Roman General, is betrayed by Commodus, the Roman Emperor, His family is killed and he narrowly escapes into the life of a slave. As a Gladiator, will he ever realize vengeance upon the man who ruined his life?
Epics from the Roman period have always been a love of mine. This movie came out when I was first starting to spread my wings and see movies on my own for the first time. The film is extravagant, violent, and features a brilliant performance by Joaquin Phoenix (“You Were Never Really Here”), who would become a favorite actor of mine.
In short, this film was made for me.
This review is about to start sounding like a rave but there is just no hiding my love for this film. I have seen this movie so many times i can quote it in my sleep, I can describe the pacing beats of certain scenes and combats, and relate to you the moments in which the audience gasped during my first viewing. It is that ingrained into my film watching psyche.
The first place this film excels is in the production design. There are few movies who can boast the subtle boldness of the design in this film. Smashed together, we have Emperor Commodus in the most elaborate luxury, almost to the standard of a fantasy epic, and the dirty, beaten slaves, bedraggled military, and conquered hordes. The Colosseum of Rome, raining down rose petals, next to the backwater communities of Rome.
The armor, the clothing, and the buildings do not even seem to attempt to be realistic but rather, play up the theatricality of Rome, its politics, and its entertainment. The stage being set in this way prepares the audience for the themes of the film which center around virtue and honor versus spectacle and show.
The show they bring us is no slouch either. The action set pieces in “Gladiator” are second to none and no tow are the same. Ridley Scott brings us a variety of combat unparalleled in film. He brings us Roman military actions and formations, one on one combats, two on one combats, 5 on 1 combats, chariots vs ground troops, ferocious beasts, political assassinations, executions, and finally, the Emperor vs a Gladiator.
In “Gladiator,” Scott explores the many forms of violence which took place in the ancient world and the ways that they were used to both thrill audiences and strike fear into the hearts of Rome’s enemies. The film not only exploits violence to keep its viewers interested, it is used to show us why it was such a powerful force to reckon with.
The final point I will touch on here is the acting. Russell Crowe (“LA Confidential”) is fine in the movie. I don’t think he does anything super remarkable but he plays it well. The real show here is in the performance of Joaquin Phoenix.
Certainly one of the best actors of our day, this was Joaquin’s debut performance and he does everything he can to make you hate the Emperor Commodus. His sniveling licking of wounds, vicious threats, patricide, incest, cheating, and conniving create a villain so distasteful that you hang on his every word to hear what horrible new thought has made its way down to his lying lips.
Without a powerful performance such as Phoenix delivers here, the actions of the Emperor might seem outlandish, too large and grandiose, to be taken seriously. When performed well, as here, it causes audiences to catch their breath when someone speaks a poorly chosen word in his presence for fear of what despicable torture Commodus will devise for them.
Clearly, I love this film and, as you have probably seen it already as well, I am sure you do too. It is one of those rare gems of a film which I know almost no one who does not care for it. If you aren’t one for violence this movie is a pass but for anyone else, I have a hard time imagining how you could not enjoy “Gladiator."
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