Edit: I somehow mixed up Russell Crowe for Gerard Butler. Yes, I am stupid, but it’s fixed now.
Before I begin, I’d like to apologize for my short hiatus over the past several weeks. School and whatnot has bogged me down, and I’m starting to run out of movies on the list that aren’t two and half hours long. Anyway, to the review…
Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is a film I’ve always been reluctant to watch. I’ve never been a huge fan of these swords and sandals type epics. But this is a film that seems to appeal to everyone. It’s been recommended to me by big cinema fans and casual audiences alike, plus it won the Oscar for Best Picture, and they never go wrong… right? Given this mass appeal, I expected some big things. In some ways I was totally satisfied, in other ways, I was pretty disappointed.
Russell Crowe stars as Maximus, Rome’s greatest military mind. Maximus is Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris)’s first choice to take over his job as emperor, but Aurelius’s son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), is none too pleased about that choice. Commodus tries to have Maximus killed off, but Maximus escapes. I don’t want to give too much more away, but needless to say Maximus become a gladiator, and seeks revenge against Commodus.
The story was the weakest element of this film for me. I was never totally captivated by the relatively simplistic plot. It’s very predictable as revenge stories go, I knew which major arcs and plot-points the story would hit after watching the first third of the movie, so I never could be fully invested in what was happening. I strangely like to compare it to Kill Bill, which is probably my favourite revenge story; that movie had a few surprises that kept me on my toes. Gladiator lacked this element for me. I definitely wasn’t bored watching Gladiator, but it wasn’t the story that kept me from falling asleep.
One thing that did keep me awake was the jaw-dropping performances. While Russell Crowe certainly deserved his Oscar for Best Actor, I actually found myself more amazed with Phoenix, who played Commodus with intimidating grandeur which stole every scene he was in. I didn’t particularly love either of their characters, who I found to be a little more one dimensional than I expected. Commodus was just pure bad, with no real redeeming qualities. Maximus is just the opposite, though I did find him to be a little more complex than Commodus. Both actors allowed these characters to become very memorable, however. I can nitpick all I want, but Crowe and Phoenix were fantastic.
What kept me interested was how good the film looks, even 12 years after its release. The production design is incredible, with enormous, intimidating settings; beautifully formulated costumes; and stunning cinematography from director of photography John Mathieson. Gladiator is a gift to the eyes, filled with gorgeousness at every turn. The beginning scene, when Maximus’s troops are battling with the Germanic tribes, had me drooling. As did any of the scenes in the Colosseum. Some of the effects do show some age, like the battle among the tigers, but this wasn’t too distracting, and I recognize just 12 years ago this would have looked amazing.
I also want to take special time to note the fight choreography, which I think is a huge reason this film is so enduring. Each fight is conducted with both grace and brutal violence. I recognize the intimidating task it would be to stage scenes such as these, with chariots, animals, and elaborate costumes to manage. Gladiator, without a doubt, has some of the more amazing action sequences I’ve seen in a long time.
Also, I couldn’t finish this review without mentioning the score by Hanz Zimmer. Any film Zimmer touches is automatically made more epic and astounding. This score doesn’t falter, and elevates each scene to a level of boldness worthy of the gods.
When the final credits rolled, I had a very mixed feeling towards Gladiator. My eyes had been thoroughly satisfied with the magnificent visuals of the film, but my head and heart felt as though there was something missing. While I recognize the film updated the ancient-era epic with the most advanced technology of the time, it ultimately reminded me of Avatar: a film that’s pretty to look at, but disappoints in creating an effective and engaging plot.