Sadly, before this I had never seen Gladiator entirely. I had only caught pieces or came in late on cable and it was always broken by editing for the violence and too many commercials. Now that I’ve finally seen it all, unedited from beginning to end, I can have a little more peace. It’s magnificent.
Russell Crowe stars as Maximus, a general for the Roman army and chosen by Marcus Aurelius to succeed him as Caesar, rather than his own son, Commodus. But Commodus steals back the throne and orders Maximus to be executed. Maximus loses everything and is sold into slavery to become a gladiator and defy Caesar.
Crowe gives one hell of a performance and deservingly received the Oscar for it, but Joaquin Phoenix plays one hell of a Caesar. With a soft, poisonous voice he’s unsettling. He’s a stupid coward, sniveling around like a little boy acting out for love, from his father, sister and the people of Rome. With all the power of Rome, he proves to be a worthy villain, one the audience can ban together and love to hate.
I remember my mom’s reaction when she realized that Phoenix (whom she loved so much in Walk the Line) was this shady little emperor. She said, “Eww, he’s creepy. He didn’t sound like that before.” For creeping my mother out, I applaud Phoenix in his ability to play such a wide range of characters.
The brutal reality of Rome is perfect here. From epic battle scenes to portraying how gladiators live, it’s realistic without taking it too far. To debunk some opinions, it is not all about blood and guts. Yes, the fight scenes are very violent, there is blood, but only in short clips is there any gore. When a man is chopped in half, you could blink and miss it. It helps keep the intensity. Now, yes, a lot of this is too violent for television, so I recommend seeing the full unedited movie. You will wince, and tell your kids to leave the room when they’re most interested, but in all, it’s a better experience.
The musical score is brilliant. It can amplify the intensity on screen and bring senses of energy and urgency. Themes swell, stirring the soul and glorifying the strength and honor within Maximus at just the right moments. It’s epic, beautiful and worthy of a story as big as Rome itself. I suggest cranking up the volume at times.
The recreation of ancient Rome, especially the Coliseum is spectacular. For generations we’ve known the Coliseum as a half crumbled ruin. But here, it’s brand new, the center of the action, full of life and harboring death. Had this movie been attempted twenty years before, it could not bring restore glory to the Coliseum as is done here.
Personally, when I visited Rome last September, I was blown away by it’s size. From the bits of Gladiator I had seen I tried to imagine the action inside, swords clashing, tigers mauling and applause like thunder. As I circled the outside I thought about the mobs of people lining the streets, the merchants trying to sell their goods and animals all around. I looked in and saw the hallow below the arena floor, where men said their last prayers before meeting a violent end while people cheered. In my opinion, Gladiator has done well keeping tales of ancient Rome alive and vibrant.
One last thing I must applaud is the use of slow motion from time to time. In my opinion, slow motion rarely works. It’s usually a moment where I make fun of whatever is happening and the characters lose all credibility to me. But here, it lets emotion ring without looking sappy. In the otherwise brutal and quick fight scenes, it brings a moment of clarity without sacrificing the intensity. Ridley Scott could do a lot of directors a favor and host a little seminar sharing his trick to making slow motion work. So many directors don’t have the first clue.
If being nominated for twelve Oscars, winning five, including Best Picture doesn’t convince you, watch and learn. Gladiator is my pick for 2000, all others bow.
“Am I not merciful?”