Montreal Film Journal


"The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story."

Indeed, striking is the epic tale of Maximus (Russell Crowe). A Spanish-born army general of the Roman Empire at its strongest, Maximus leads the troops that defeat the last rebellious barbarians of Germania in the film's visceral, "Saving Private Ryan"-style opening. He then longs to return home to his wife and son and their farm, but his father figure and emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) has bigger plans for him. He senses the weight of age more each day and he asks Maximus to succeed him in Rome, his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) being an immoral disgrace. Of course, the latter isn't very pleased to learn this, and he kills his father before he makes his decision public and then orders Maximus' execution. The general escapes his assassins and flees, only to find his home burnt to the ground and his wife and child crucified. And, with barely enough time to ragefully swear revenge, he's captured and taken to North Africa as a slave...

Already, we're completely engrossed in the picture, and can't hardly wait for Russell Crowe to rise back from his ashes. Meanwhile in Rome, the new emperor can't seem to agree with the Senate about politics, as they demand better conditions for the people while Commodus solely wants from them the love he never got from his father, even if he has to try and appeal to their lower instincts and quench their thirst for blood by bringing back the Games to the Coliseum. Little does he know that, among "those who are about to die", a slave turned gladiator extraordinaire waits to get even...

Ridley Scott directed this larger than life surefire blockbuster, the first toga-and-sandals flick since the "Spartacus" days. Thanks to advances in CGI and digital effects and the flair for bold visuals he showed in classics like "Blade Runner" and "Alien", Scott is able to recreate with impressive realism antic Rome in general and the Coliseum in particular. In that light, "Gladiator" kinda reminds of "Titanic", another old fashioned but grandiose period piece. You could also think of the gory impact of the battles in "Braveheart" but, most of all, the film follows the classic story arc of revenge movies like "Conan The Barbarian". If you'll remember, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle also followed a hero who was put into slavery, became a mighty gladiator and went on to avenge his family's slaughter.

But enough about comparisons. "Gladiator" stands on its own as a gripping, highly entertaining film which mixes a plot of tragedy and revenge with thrilling, expertly crafted action scenes. The movie lasts more than 2 and a half hours, but I didn't even see the time go by. Somehow perversely, you become like the bloodthirsty mobs watching the massacres, almost getting up in the theater to chant 'Maximus! MAXIMUS!!' along with the Romans. Blood flies, heads roll, swords clash, and in one of the movie's high points, Maximus even faces tigers!

Some might say that the David H. Franzoni screenplay is rather simplistic and conventional. Maybe, but the cast is so strong that it gives it some depth and emotional resonance. Joaquin Phoenix is oddly cast, but he works as Commodus. I like that no matter how evil his actions are, you still can see where all that hostility is coming from. He's like Tony Montana in "Scarface", a flawed man whose anger-fueled ambition leads him to the top only to find out that he's still miserable and lonely. And like Montana, Commodus harbors unhealthy feelings towards his sister Lucilla, played nicely by Connie Nielsen. Veteran Richard Harris is good too, as are Derek Jacobi as a Senator trying to make Rome into a Republic and the late Oliver Reed (he died towards the end of the shoot) as former gladiator turned trainer Proximo. Last but not least is Russell Crowe who shines as a dark and disturbed action star. He's in no small part responsible for this Caesar giving Gladiator an enthusiastic thumbs up.