At one point in Gladiator, Ridley Scott’s epic exhuming and re-animating of the entire sword and sandal genre, Russell Crowe’s stoic general, Maximus Decimus Meridius, addresses his men with the line: “What we do in life, echoes in eternity.”
While I would argue that me sleeping in on Saturdays and day drinking whenever I get a day off probably won’t effect future generations all that much, you can’t help but admit it’s a helluva line and one that sums up Scott’s Phoenix-like rise perfectly.
After Thelma And Louise ended their road trip with the best view of the Grand Canyon you’re ever likely to get, Scott had something of a patchy 90’s with Conquest Of Paradise and White Squall all but being ignored and G.I. Jane attracting derision to the sight of a bald Demi Moore becoming a member of an elite special forces unit – however, no one could have predicted exactly how hard Gladiator would hit and not only did it resurrect Scott’s stock in Hollywood exponentially, it made a bonafide star out of Crowe and even kick started a resurgence of films that saw sweaty dudes in sandals brawling their way through ancient times.
After finally bringing peace to the sprawling Roman empire by winning a decisive battle against the Germanic tribes, General Maximus goes to his beloved Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and begs to be allowed to finally return home to his wife and child and the farming life he loves. However, the ailing Aurelius has something quite different in mind and wants Rome to once again become a republic after his death and has tasked his general with this job because he loves him like a son.
However, Commodus, the Emperor’s actual son doesn’t take the news quite so well and being the spoilt, entitled psychopath that he is, he smothers his father in secret, proclaims himself Emperor and has Maximus arrested whole ordering him put to death for good measure. However, while Maximus escapes his captors, he is too late to stop his wife and son from being murdered by more of Commodus’ men and after succumbing to some nasty wounds, wakes up to find himself the property of slavers who promptly sell him to caustic gladiator trainer, Proximo.
In three easy steps, Maximus has gone from general, to slave, to gladiator, but thanks to his talent in sticking the pointy end of a sword into an opponent, he soon becomes beloved by the crowd. However, luck shines on him when its announced that Commodus is holding 150 days worth of violent games in the Colosseum to honor his father’s death and so Proximo’s company (along with countless others) up sticks to Rome which finally puts Maximus closer to getting his revenge – but matters are made all the more complicated by the reappearance of scheming, old flame, Lucilla, who is also Commodus’ sister and her insistence that a gladiator could become powerful enough to change everything only counts if Maximus can survive.
When Gladiator landed, it was nothing short of a fucking sensation. Scott emerged spectacularly from his perceived slump and proved that Hollywood really does still make them like they used to by emploting all the brand spanking new toys to make it so. However, to shrug at Gladiator and simply write it off (Oscars and all) as being a basic revenge story with all the bells and whistles of a historical epic is somewhat missing the point – yes, Gladiator is something of a straight forward story, but it’s the way that story is told is what gives the movie it’s power.
First and foremost is the casting of a much younger (and thinner) Russell Crowe as Maximus, and the way he portrays the character is a masterstroke – if you’re not the type who gets annoyed that an Aussie is playing a Hispano-Roman with an English accent, that is. A capable General, a loving husband and a honorable man he may be, but he also has the ability to become a fucking animal when fighting in the gladiatorial pits, slicing motherfuckers into mincemeat as he snarls like a lunatic. Simply put, Crowe gets it and plays every aspect of the man note perfect, especially when he realises exactly how big the pond he’s swimming in is. It’s a deceptively nuanced performance as Maximus goes from idealistic general to lowly slave to a reluctant saviour of Rome, but Crowe equits himself magnificently on all counts, be it spitting absurdly iconic lines – the moment where he reveals himself by removing his mask and essentially puts Commodus on notice in front of everyone is surely at least in the top 3 of greatest scenes of the decade.
He’s supported well too with a pouting Joaquin Phoenix on splendidly hissable form as the viciously spiteful Commodus and Connie Nielsen as the underhanded, yet good hearted Lucilla – but the real sparks come from some reliably grizzled faces on display as a noticably frail Richard Harris portrays Aurelius as a just man, worried about what legacy his death will bring, while the human booze receptacle known as Oliver Reed bellows through his final role in a way that only Oliver Reed could. I can’t think of a single actor that could rasp out the line “You sold me queer giraffes!” with even half the impact that Reed could and his slow switch from callous profiteer to honorable man is genuinely touching.
However, the true star here is the sence of the epic that Scott brought back to cinemas and while some of the then-lauded CGI effects that rebuilt the Coliseum haven’t maybe aged as well as they could have, it still retains its sence of awe thanks to Scott’s ridiculously trained eye and a score by Hans Zimmer that effectively changed the way filmmakers approached music for blockbusters for at least the next twenty years. To Scott’s credit, his doesn’t skimp on the red stuff either (which is wise considering this is a film about people killing each other for a crowd) and the gladiatorial segments are well staged and nicely seperate from one another as each action sequence differentiates itself clearly from the last. One moment Maximus is nonchalantly cleaving pieces off of rival gladiators, the next he’s wrasslin’ tigers or commanding his comrades to untite against an attack from waves of chariots and each sequence carries significant weight thanks the the epic boom of the score or the occasional, gorgeously shot gout of arterial blood that sprays orgasmically across the frame.
There’s a few issues here and there; the sudden decision of Commodus to square off with Maximus in the Coliseum for a final boss showdown seems a little convoluted and there’s nothing overly groundbreaking about the whole thing. But it’s the precisely the spirited updating of the historical epic – that still keeps the genre’s basic goals intact – that stands as Gladiator’s greatest victory.
“Are you not entertained?” roars Maximus to the crowd at one point – yes Maximus, we bloody well are. Very much so.