Winner of five Academy Awards including Best Picture, and nominated for an additional seven, Gladiator is one of the best produced and directed films of its time.
Reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, it creates a world so seemingly realistic, you find yourself drawn backward in time to the glory days of Rome. The musical score, colorful costumes, and intricate sets combine to create the illusion that one is actually witnessing the trials and travails of human existence in early millennial Rome.
The film opens with a sobering display of ancient warfare’s equivalent of “shock and awe” as the Roman legions advance on a band of rebels resisting the empire from the outskirts of Gaul.
From the moment the legion commanders signal attack, the fury of hell is unleashed as flaming arrows and iron bars batter a unified front of rebel fighters. The scene is more comparable to Desert Storm than an ancient battlefield, and it visually illustrates the overwhelming power once embodied in the Roman legions.
The central figure of the film and leader of the opening battle is Maximus (Russell Crowe), a Roman general adored by his men and admired throughout the empire for his impeccable character.
While visiting the battlefield, the aging Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) reveals to Maximus his secret plan to appoint the general caretaker of Rome upon his death, with the understanding he will restore the Senate and eliminate the dictatorial rule of the Caesars.
But unbeknownst to both men, the emperor’s overly ambitious son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) learns of the plan. He murders his father and demands the allegiance of Maximus.
When the general refuses, the new emperor calls for his execution, seeking to eliminate all who stand in his way. But the plan goes awry when Maximus escapes, setting the stage for the central conflict of the film as Maximus the gladiator grows in legend and Maximus the slave challenges the authority of a Roman emperor…
Crowe is cast well in the roll of the classic hero, but it’s the supporting cast which puts Gladiator in another dimension of cinematic excellence. Joaquin Phoenix dominates the screen with his impassioned portrayal of the darkly ambitious Commodus, providing film lovers with an early glimpse of his now apparent acting genius.
Richard Harris is his usual charismatic onscreen presence, while Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, and Derek Jacobi lend excellent complimentary support to the role of Maximus as their characters unveil the driving life force and internal motivations of the larger than life Roman hero. To this end, the strength of the cast creates a synergy reflected in the overall quality of this memorable film.
As a work of entertainment, Gladiator is second to none. The gladiatorial battle scenes provide endless thrills, and the dialogue between the characters is wrought with political intrigue, lust for power, and conflicting realities.
Russell Crowe is superb in his role as the hero Maximus. Noble in his intentions and powerful as a leader, Maximus represents the ideal of honor and chivalry.
One of those rare films which offers its audience a true emotional stake in the outcome, Gladiator is fraught with high-octane suspense and thrilling action sequences. If you liked Mel Gibson’s Braveheart or The Patriot, then you’ll simply love Gladiator.
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