It was a huge gamble how millennium audiences would react to a costume
epic centred on the Coliseum. Carry on Cleo trouncing Burton and Taylor's
Cleopatra at the box office in 1964 seemed to have been the ignominious
epitaph for a genre that had become a colossal bore.
Ridley Scott, however, has unleashed a monumental spectacle.
His tale of the downfall and rise of Maximus the Gladiator is a classic
example of what can be achieved when a director's ambitious vision is
brought to fruition.
The film succeeds on virtually every score. Scott is a director long
accused of promoting style over substance. But here he also scrutinizes
the darkness beneath supreme power.
As for style, the CGI recreation of the gladiatorial arenas and Ancient
Roman architecture eclipse anything MGM ever took months to construct,
ensuring we become drawn into the display just as surely as if we were
seated amongst the baying simulated extras.
At its core, Gladiator is a simple tale about the relentless struggle
of a free man to confront the regime that betrayed him into slavery and
vanquished his loved ones.
Russell Crowe's Maximus commands every screen moment, his tender blue eyes
a sublime contrast to his latent menace and animal magnetism. Although
he is introduced as a ruthless general, he exposes the inner conflicts
and flaws that drive the man; especially when he falls from grace to
become a killer in the arena. This is a potent and measured performance
that carries the film.
Joaquin Phoenix gives a magnetic portrayal of the Emperor. Revered as a
God by the proletariat, he is full aware that the only larger than life
aspect of his character is his weaknesses and vices. Phoenix's sensitive
wallowing depict the corruption at the heart of the Roman Empire's majesty.
Oliver Reed gives a restrained performance as a sly, knowing slave dealer.
These fleeting but adept on-screen moments are a fitting tribute to the actor.
It would have been tempting to dazzle audiences with sun-bathed architecture
and pulsating chariot races alone. This, however, would have sacrificed
narrative drive for the sake of a few flashing chariot races. Essentially,
this is the story of one man's battle against the odds.
This is an exhilarating cinematic experience. The splendour and decadence
of Ancient Rome fill the screen in all their aesthetic beauty, pomp and
You can almost taste the sand during Maximus' introduction to the gladiator
world in North Africa, and by the time he arrives in the Roman Coliseum,
you are greeted with visions that are jaw-dropping.
The opening segment of the film, featuring the Roman Armies of the North
lining up to do battle with barbarian hordes amongst the snow-lashed
Germanic forests, are truly awesome. As fiery projectiles rain down on
the Teutons and the armoured legionnaires lock horns with the baying
savages, you are plunged into a relentlessly homicidal melee that makes
Spartacus seem like handbags at dawn.
Chained tigers and chariot assaults to a backdrop of a thousand bellowing
spectators leave you on the verge of leaping from your seat with the
thumb message of your choice.
A tour-de-force achievement. Gladiator stands out from the mainstream
releases of 2000 because it has opted for a subject which no-one else
had dared touch with a barge-pole, then delivered the goods with the
impact of a catapult missile.
Copyright © 2001 Mark Fleming