Written by: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Djimon Hounsou
It’s often said vengeance will never fill the void left behind from the inciting event. No matter the level of action, saying this will rarely initially stop someone from enacting it. Now imagine the person you try to inflict this upon happens to be the most powerful man in the world with the biggest army behind him. Quite the task but one the protagonist of Gladiator must take on in order fulfill his last act on this Earth.
After refusing to follow the rule of the new Emperor, Roman General, Maximus (Russell Crowe) gets sentenced to death and has his family killed. Narrowly escaping execution, he gets thrown into becoming a gladiator and while initially hesitant, he discovers he can make his way back to Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) through these games to enact his revenge.
The machinations of what drove Rome as an empire says plenty about how things operated in the era and how many of those ideas persisted through time. After all, the Romans nearly conquered most of the world they could reach through horse or boat and did it with almost relative ease. All across the world different colonies operated differently even if under the same rule, but the way things operated specifically in Rome carries the most intrigue and the popularity of gladiator battles still sends shivers down my spine. The fact people used to attend days of slaves and warriors fighting to the death for entertainment purposes never ceases to stun me. Sure, that may sound rich from a culture paying top dollar to watch football and boxing where long-term injuries have become well-documented but the Romans watched people literally kill each other live. Very grim but it definitely makes for a fun action and historical epic of the highest order.
This narrative finds Maximus at the top of the world, leading general of the Roman army with the respect of his men, and most importantly that of the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). His fall to the point of being a slave and rising through the gladiator games certainly calls odes to Ben-Hur but this feature carries a different intrigue, which exists in the tragedy of Maximus losing his family and his target being virtually untouchable. In that time, no other man could get away with so much with little harm potentially coming his way than a Roman Emperor. This is what Maximus must take on and his rise back to the top becomes one to watch with pride, awe, and a reminder of what made him such a great general in the first place.
While Maximus remains the protagonist of this feature, the one who steals the show and becomes a villain for the ages is Commodus portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix. When I say Phoenix is outstanding in this role, let me tell you, for years following my initial watch of this feature as a young lad, I genuinely disliked the actor on a personal level. He was just that good in the role, until I matured with age and could separate a character from the actor to only grow and appreciate the brilliance on display here with Commodus. From the start, it becomes evident he’s quite a brat and not who his father, Marcus Aurielius would prefer to step into the coveted role but Commodus has this conniving factor to him. His power-hungry desire to lead others and have fealty takes no prisoners thus causing him to make some truly heinous decisions that would make any audience member’s blood boil. However, in the end, his insecurities dictate so much of his personality and how anyone standing in his way of being beloved by the people has their life threatened. He experienced this once when the soldiers cheered for General Maximus instead of him and then later on nearly driving him to his tipping point. Again, Phoenix just does so well with this snivelling runt to capture the wide range of emotions he goes on in order to step into this role with no business being near besides his bloodline.
A term thrown out on many occasions in this feature is “the mob,” which references the people as a whole who need to be pleased. They essentially dictate everything seeing as they outnumber the senators and the emperor by many. They almost set the rules for the Emperor to follow and Commodus’s obsession with ensuring he is pleasing them says plenty about his priorities and who, in the end, holds the power in Rome. None of that certainly helps our dear friend Commodus and his insecurities I bet.
As Maximus rises to the top to fight in gladiator battles in the fabled Colosseum, he takes on fighters from the outskirts of the empire. It feels like playing in the minors prior to being called up to the majors in baseball where he needs to prove himself. This makes for entertaining sequences for sure, but within it contains this film’s most quotable line but a direct criticism by Maximus towards the people watching these games. You all know it, “Are you not entertained?” He looks these people in the eye but it becomes evident everyone involved in this show, comes into this for selfish reasons. The gladiators want to preserve their lives, the owners want to make money on the success of their fighters, and the audience wants to be entertained. A symbiotic relationship they all have with each other with a certain level of selfishness being much more harmful than the others. From the shabby arenas to the Colosseum itself, Maximus learns to embrace the other selfish reason a gladiator could have for being in these games, fame. It becomes his pathway to success and he must harness it in order to get his vengeance.
The fight sequences do not get captured in the most captivating manner but the production design in creating the Rome we see around these characters really takes the cake. From recreating the Colosseum to the way most historians would describe it to the shabby smaller arenas, the momentous feeling of each place gets felt with the help of Ridley Scott’s direction. Every moment feels like it could be the last for our heroes, including a strong supporting performance by Djimon Hounsou as Juba. Nothing beats the moments in the Colosseum where the weight of entertaining the crowd through all of the spectacle becomes palpable to an incredible degree.
Having a film of this sort with Best Picture at the Academy Awards shows the blending of historical epics and action can make for good complements. Gladiator finds an excellent balance between the two for telling an expansive yet personal story of vengeance. It will just take Maximus to get through an entire Roman army, but he finds the way to get what he needs before departing this world. Great mainstream filmmaking with plenty to hold onto as a thrilling viewing experience.