Review: Gladiator (2000)

Has it really been eleven years since the movie Gladiator was in theaters? The movie won an Oscar for Best Picture in 2001, and Russell Crowe’s Best Actor award cemented him as a top tier actor. Gladiator is one of those movies I have been meaning to see because everyone said it was such a good movie. Yet I punted, in part because I heard the violence was excessive and because my spouse had no interest in seeing it. Since my wife was on the other coast over the weekend, I knew the time had come to see it at last.

The violence turned out to be not as bad as I feared, which is good, because I have a weak stomach. This surprised me because being a gladiator is an incredibly bloody job, not to mention typically a short lived profession. If you haven’t seen the movie then it won’t be a surprise when lots of people die, mostly gladiators and Germans, some in ghastly ways. But it rarely happens in ways where guts are spewed all over the ground or dismembered and twitching limbs make you wish your seat came with a barf bag. It’s grisly enough and if at times you find yourself thinking it could not have been that bad, then you need to read more history books.

Director Ridley Scott has something of a talent for directing ancient battle scenes, because not only did he direct Gladiator but more recently he also directed Robin Hood, also starring Russell Crowe as a muscled warrior. Robin Hood is just a common soldier. In Gladiator, Russell Crowe gets to play Maximus, a Roman general who also happens to be close to emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) and his comely daughter Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). Maximus is a dutiful general but having defeated the Germans in a bloody but decisive battle terrifically rendered at the start of the movie, he simply wants to return home, make love to his wife and pal around with his son.

Unfortunately, the emperor is nearby after the battle is won, as is his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who wants to assume his throne. Marcus Aurelius, however, proves to be a secret Republican, as in someone who believes in the Roman Republic, and quietly tells Maximus he is to be his successor, but just long enough to return the Senate to power. To say the least, the politically unambitious Maximus is surprised, but his surprise takes a different direction when shortly after the emperor conveys his intentions to Commodus, his son decides a little patricide is in order and wrings his father’s neck. This sort of leaves Commodus as the new emperor, but also makes it imperative that the faithful and loyal Maximus be murdered. Maximus is wildly popular with his men and Commodus realizes that he could wield great loyalty if his father’s wishes were carried out.

Needless to say, Maximus escapes death, but just barely. He quickly realizes that his family is likely in danger, and gets back to Spain as fast as he can. However, he is not fast enough to save them, or elude an African slaver. It’s quite a fall. He is quickly sold as a gladiator for some quick cash. He proves adept at the art of slaying in arenas, which comes naturally after having led so many battles. He and a fellow black gladiator Juba (Djimon Hounsou) beat the odds and survive while men die around them. Both eventually are sent to fight in the games in Rome, and arrive with their owner Proximo (Oliver Reed), a former gladiator himself who managed to buy his freedom and who longs to return in glory to fights in Rome’s massive coliseum. The new emperor Commodus promotes these bloody contests to try to win affection from a populace indifferent to him. He hopes that by winning the crowd he will also keep the Roman Senate at bay, where powerful senators like Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) want him dead and the Senate in charge.

Gladiator is a fine movie with wonderful acting, special effects and has a feeling of authenticity about the ancient Roman Empire that would be delightful except it is so faithfully harsh to the time. In short, it is a fine movie, yet not without its flaws, and the flaws are such that I probably would have disqualified it as a best picture candidate.

Gladiator’s biggest problem is its wholly implausible plot. Yes, I can sort of accept that Maximus missed his chance to be a surprise emperor of Rome. From there the incredulity factor reaches surreal and finally unacceptable levels, to where you just have to surrender to its craziness. It’s easy to accept Maximus’s family dying at the hands of Roman soldiers; this was a fact of life for the politically vanquished in that time. It’s easy to believe that if he survived, Maximus would have been sold into slavery. This was an age where slaves probably outnumbered free men. It is not easy to believe that Maximus, by then something of an older man, would survive in the very lethal world of gladiators. The whole thing falls apart when he makes it to Rome; he proves successful in the coliseum, comes to the personal attention of the emperor, is unmasked and soon has the Roman legions lining up behind him for a little coup d’état. The ending is, frankly, ridiculous. I won’t spoil it for you. In fact, Commodus was a victim of a conspiracy that kept his reign short, but his downfall was much more pedestrian than the fanciful and frankly incredulous way he meets his end in this movie.

Still, it is hard to be too upset about a movie otherwise rendered so well. So this movie is best viewed with a biased and sentimental heart. Disconnect the logical part of your brain for the duration.

3.4 on my four-point scale.

[xrr rating=3.4/4]

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