Friday 2 October 2015

Movie Review: Gladiator (2000)

An epic drama set in the glory days of the Roman Empire, Gladiator is a rousing story of one noble warrior's quest for revenge against the evil forces of a corrupt Emperor. Director Ridley Scott reinvigorated the grand historical epic genre, while star Russell Crowe established himself as a charismatically intense hero, comfortable in any epoch.

The Roman Empire, in 180 AD. Ageing Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is in poor health and reaching the end of his life. His army, under the command of General Maximus (Crowe), crushes the Germanic tribes and the Empire stands unchallenged. Marcus has a power-hungry but weak, unworthy and immoral son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), and a clever daughter Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), who long ago was Maximus' lover. Maximus is a phenomenally skilled warrior and strategist, but longs to return to his farm in Spain, where his wife and son are waiting.

Maximus, preparing to give the battle order: At my signal, unleash hell.

With corruption running rampant through Rome, several Senators, including Gacchus (Derek Jacobi) and Gaius (John Shrapnel), are disillusioned with the Emperor and seek the creation of a Republic. Marcus regrets a life preoccupied with warfare, and decides that the respected and honourable Maximus should succeed him as Emperor to bring political stability and good governance back to the Empire. Before Marcus can publicly announce his decision, Commodus kills him and seizes power and orders the death of Maximum.

Maximus escapes, but his wife and son are brutally killed by Commodus' men. The former general is sold into slavery, eventually becoming the property of Proximo (Oliver Reed), who owns a stable of gladiators in the far reaches of the Empire. Maximus proves himself a popular killing machine, and establishes a reputation among the blood thirsty crowds as "the Spaniard". He also befriends fellow slave gladiators Juba (Djimon Hounsou) and Hagen (Ralf Möller).

In Rome, Commodus struggles to rule, while Lucilla is caught between loyalty to her brother, worry about his intentions towards her young son, and the restless Senators. Commodus tries to improve his popularity by sponsoring 150 days of games, including returning gladiator battles to the Colosseum. Eventually Proximo and his men are invited back to compete, allowing Maximus to return to Rome. He is single-mindedly determined to find his revenge against Commodus, but first has to survive the brutal gladiator battles.

Maximus, revealing his identity: My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius. Commander of the Armies of the North. General of the Felix Legions. Loyal servant to the true Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife – and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.

Inspired by actual history but very much a work of fiction, Gladiator offers more than 150 minutes of rollicking action and tumultuous human conflict. The film is unrelenting in offering up awe-inspiring scenes of combat and carnage interspersed with healthy doses of character development driven by themes of loyalty, mistrust, ambition and cold revenge. At its core the film is about a conflict between two men who both insist on having their own way with history, and neither will settle until the other is destroyed.

The battle scenes deliver tense excitement, Scott able to mix close combat with enough strategic perspective to maintain coherence. Whether the death and destruction is unleashed deep in the Germanic forests or the relatively tighter confines of the Colosseum, Scott and cinematographer John Mathieson adopt an often jerky soldier's eye view of battle, with just enough wider shots to provide context. There is plenty of blood, gore and dismemberment to convey ferocity, with individuals who matter frequently placed in harms way to ensure that the danger registers.

But the strength of the film lies ultimately with character depth rather than stacks of corpses. As simple as the story is, it is also undoubtedly compelling. Maximum is as pure and humble as a man as he is merciless as a battle warrior, a loyal soldier who kills Rome's enemies as needed but always yearns to return to the peacefulness of home. Commodus is his antithesis, morally bankrupt, power hungry despite being undeserving, and caring much less about the glory of Rome than personal adulation. Heroes and villains don't come much more white and black than what Gladiator offers, but both men are presented as unyielding and flawed. Maximus allows his quest for revenge to consume him, while Commodus becomes obsessed with the need to publicly usurp and humiliate the popular gladiator once he returns to Rome.

In the wings are two other characters facing moments of truth. Lucilla is forced to navigate the treacherous path where her brother is an unworthy Emperor, her young son is heir apparent and therefore in mortal danger, and her former lover is intent on causing mayhem in the hallways of power. Proximo's story is much more modest: a former gladiator himself, Proximo finds himself in possession of the purest killing machine that can provide him with unlimited riches. But Proximo grows to realize that the Spaniard is destined for a higher purpose, and men like Proximo get to choose their side of history, but don't get to shape the outcome.

Proximo, to Maximus: Then listen to me. Learn from me. I wasn't the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd, and you will win your freedom.

Visually, Scott offers a spectacular recreation of Rome in all its glory, including breathtaking views of a reconstructed Colosseum brought back to raucous life. Many scenes feature seemingly thousands of extras, with live actors blended seamlessly with CGI effects. And in one battle, a few angry tigers enter the fray to join in the bloodletting. In the middle of it all, Russell Crowe commands the action with unflappable self-belief, oozing star power with the confidence of a man on a mission he believes to be absolutely righteous. Joaquin Phoenix manages the unenviable task of creating a hateable villain, his Commodus consisting of insidious lies, barely concealed deceit, and soulless betrayal in the pursuit of power.

Oliver Reed and Connie Nielsen offer commendable support in the main secondary roles. Reed passed away partway through filming, and his scenes where completed with the help of doubles and imaginative computer trickery. Djimon Hounsou gets a rather underwritten role as another gladiator in Proximo's stable who befriends Maximus.

Gladiator is a towering achievement, a celebration of the clash between the worst and the best that manhood offers: from pathetic selfish self-aggrandizement to saving the soul of an Empire.

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