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A fine modern epic, 'Gladiator' is quite a psychological tale, though it does have its fair share of blood and gore. The only big battle scenes are early on in the film, with the Romans against the Germanic tribes.
Having been brought up on that other Universal glad flick, 'Spartacus', 'Gladiator' isn't quite what I'm expecting. The brutality and cruelty is still there, and Russell Crowe puts in a worthy Oscar-winning performance combining machismo and sensitivity, a la Kirk Douglas, but there's as much going on with the Commodus character, a superb reined in, and Oscar nominated, performance of a nutty Roman emperor by Joaquin Phoenix (God knows, crazy Roman emperors have been a boon for actors to ham it up in the past).
Commodus, after expecting the role of emperor to be bestowed on him by his dying father, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), takes a deadly revenge when it's given to Maximus (Crowe) instead. He kills his ailing father, and, unsuccessfully, attempts to have Maximus killed, and then burns and crucifies his wife and son. Maximus returns to his home, and sees the atrocity for himself, and while on the run is taken by force to a gladiator school, which is run by Proximo (Oliver Reed).
Maximus ends up in Rome to be served up as the usual gladiatorial fare (look out for David Hemmings in a very unbecoming wig as a sort of bloodsports MC). He earns the respect of his fellow gladiators, and refuses to be killed. When Commodus finds out who he really is, he becomes obsessed with his elimination, but, Maximus is such a hero with the people Commodus can only have him killed in the arena, not in a sly way away from the public's gaze. Thus, he pits Maximus against a giant, and some tigers on chains, but still Maximus is still left standing.
Steadily going more insane, Commodus discovers a plot against him, with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) implicated. As he lusts after her, and says he loves her, Commodus is reduced to threats. Threatening to kill both Lucilla and her son, Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark), Commodus realises that his sister loves Maximus, so he sets out to finish him off once and for all. The Praetorian Guard are sent to get him at glad HQ, but Proximo, and the other gladiators, help him escape.
Maximus isn't free for long, and is hauled back for one final confrontation with Commodus. Coward that he is, he challenges Maximus to a duel in the arena, with Commodus disabling him with a dagger thrust just to make the odds in his favour. But things don't turn out well for Commodus, and even a half-dead Maximus is too much for him. Even his own loyal soldiers turn on him, and refuse to come to his aid when he realises Maximus is gaining the upper hand. With Commodus dead, Maximus asks for the old values of Rome to be restored.
A moving finale to the film, featuring Maximus' gladiatorial friend, Juba (Djimon Hounsou), sees him do a final favour for a friend.
With a cast of great British/Irish actors: Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, David Hemmings (all three dying in the few years after this movie was made), and Derek Jacobi, the acting is of a very high standard. The music is sumptuous by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, and is particularly effective in the poetical dream sequences, which are beautifully done by the DreamWorks company. One final thought, I do wish Commodus had been given to the tigers for dinner!
- Paul Rance/booksmusicfilmstv.com.
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Directed by Ridley Scott
Story by David Franzoni
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