movie film review | chris tookey


2000 - Dreamworks LLC & Universal Pictures - all rights reserved
  Gladiator Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
7.40 /10
Russell Crowe AAW, Joaquin Phoenix AAN, Richard Harris
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Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: David H. Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson

Released: 2000
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 155

Maximus (Russell Crowe, pictured right) , a brave Spanish general, is favoured by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) to take over the empire and ensure that it is governed by the Senate under the kindly guidance of Gracchus, played by Derek Jacobi. However, the Emperor's son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, pictured left) has other ideas and murders his father before he can make the plan public. Not only this: he orders Maximus to be executed, and his wife and son to be burned and crucified alive. Though Maximus escapes, he is captured, enslaved and then turned into a gladiator by the owner of a touring gladiator company (Oliver Reed in his last film, brought back to life by computer magic for his final scenes). Whereupon Maximus is brought to Rome, wows the audience and his fellow-slaves, is elevated to superstardom and finally gets the chance to gain his revenge on Commodus.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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The kind of sword-and-sandals spectacular that seemed to have died out 40 years previously, with Spartacus. However, it's back - and great fun. Director Ridley Scott is just the man to re-imagine Ancient Rome in all its glory and brutality.

The Roman Coliseum - partly built, partly computer-generated - is marvellously realised. The action sequences, whether they be men fighting tigers or a high-speed chariot battle, are tremendous.

The opening spectacle of a Roman army overcoming the Germanic tribes amidst oceans of mud (actually shot near Farnham, in Surrey) is a scene to rival anything in Braveheart. Indeed, Ridley Scott's coverage is plainly influenced by Spielberg's even more brilliant portrayal of the Normandy landings in Saving Private Ryan.

Scott is an expert at using landscape to denote characters' emotions - this was one of the undervalued strengths in the way he directed Thelma and Louise - and he uses this talent to great effect throughout. The work by British cinematographer John Matheson is as lyrical as it is thrilling.

Storywise, the formula is pretty much as it was when Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas used to do this kind of thing. A handsome, hunky if not particularly humorous hero is reduced to slavery but wins through against his eminently hissable enemies.

One of the film's biggest assets is Russell Crowe who is, as he showed in L.A. Confidential and The Insider, a very fine actor. Here, he is a long way from the paunchy, middle-aged scientist he played in The Insider. The script is nothing if not ponderous and po-faced, but Crowe invests it with quiet heroism, brooding menace and gravitas. His accent has a tendency to turn Antipodean in moments of stress, but he has that Charlton Heston quality of not making you laugh, however pompous the dialogue. He makes it seem the most natural thing in the world to conduct a man-to-man swordfight in a skirt, while a live tiger is mauling his shoulders.

Phoenix is convincingly nasty, and finds the pathos within Commodus: here is a weak man who knows he is weak, and resorts to brutality to hide it. The most intriguing character, because we rarely know which way she is going to jump, is Commodus' beautiful sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), an old flame of Maximus but ambitious for her small son Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark) and unsure how to treat her brother's incestuous cravings for her.

Few viewers are likely to take the film very seriously as history. A few issues are raised - about democracy and the distracting power of violent entertainment - but they aren't allowed to get in the way of the action.

At two and a half hours, the film does drag a bit between bloodbaths, and the Gladiator-versus-Emperor climax is too obviously contrived. The film has nothing new to say and no higher purpose than to make money; and Derek Jacobi's presence is a reminder that the TV series I Claudius had more depth and intellectual daring.

But, as long as you can put up with the gore and extreme violence, you'll come out of Gladiator feeling you've had your money's worth. This is escapist entertainment rather than art; but it delivers the same kind of thrills and high romance that The Mask of Zorro did.

It's good to see new life being breathed into old genres.

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