Gladiator was a return to the sword-and-sandal films in vogue in the 1950's. It is a good homage in that respect, and while it is still entertaining in other respects it is vastly overrated.
In 180 A.D. Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) is about to finally vanquish the Germanic tribes and bring them into the Roman Empire of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Maximus' greatest wish to see the end of war and return to his home in present-day Spain, where his wife and son await him.
Marcus Aurelius has other plans, however. He tells a shocked Maximus that the Emperor wants the general to succeed him on the throne and return Rome to a republic. As Maximus wavers, Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) learns of this from Dad and makes his move: he kills his father and orders the execution of Maximus and his family.
Maximus, however, escapes assassination but after finding his family slaughtered ends up a slave to Proximo (Oliver Reed). Proximo, a former gladiator himself, makes Maximus, now known as 'The Spaniard' into one of his gladiators. An unexpected benefit of Commodus' ascension is the lifting of a gladiatorial ban in Rome, allowing Proximo and his men to leave their backwater and return from exile. Maximus is told, 'win the crowd and you win your freedom', a maxim Maximus takes up for a chance at vengeance.
Maximus and Prospero have achieved the gladiatorial equivalent of a Minor League Baseball player being called up to The Show.
Commodus works against the Senate to gain total power, with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) trying to play both sides to protect her son. Both are shocked to find Maximus alive, but his popularity with the Roman mob prevents Commodus from killing him outright. It becomes a battle for survival to see which of the two will ultimately triumph.
Gladiator, I think, had as a major selling point its tagline, which a variation of is used in the film if memory serves correct. "A general who became a slave. A slave who became a gladiator. A gladiator who defied an Empire". Watching it after a distance of almost twenty years I can appreciate how heavily director Ridley Scott drew on past films like Spartacus, Triumph of the Will and The Searchers in his tale of vengeance and political machinations.
One can appreciate the technical skill in Gladiator, starting from the opening battle in Germania where one is thrust into war. John Mathiesen's cinematography here and throughout is strong as is the set design, which mirrors the darkness of Commodus' palace to his heart.
Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard (the latter from the seminal New Age group Dead Can Dance) create a mix of ethereal, otherworldly music with the appropriate Sturm und Drang pounding one can expect from a film set in the Roman Empire's descent.
There are, however, some elements in Gladiator now that looked dated or weak. In one of the film's weaknesses I think is in many of the performances. I found many but not all of the performances to be too theatrical for my tastes. Harris in particular seemed to be rather overblown and grand as Marcus Aurelius, milking things for something closer to camp than philosopher-king.
Nielsen seemed to be have a bit of a grand, theatrical manner at times, though other times she seemed more natural. Reed unfortunately died during filming, forcing the company to digitally insert him in some scenes. His performance wasn't as grand as some of the others, though looking at it now only once would I say you could tell where his face was added to a body-double.
Phoenix was excellent as Commodus, this mixture of weak man-child and ruthless tyrant. Even the faux-British accent he had didn't seem too outlandish. He embraced Commodus' blend of nuttiness and dangerous and went all-in. Djimon Hounsou as Juba, a fellow gladiator, was probably the best performance in his all-too-brief scenes.
Having revisited Gladiator, I am puzzled as to why Crowe's performance was singled out. His Maximus was essentially one-note: all growl and glum. To be fair David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson's screenplay allowed for very little levity, but Crowe never looked happy. Only once was there any hint of humor, when a fellow gladiator pretends to be poisoned from eating Maximus' soup only to break out laughing. I think that was the only time Crowe smiled.
It wasn't as if they didn't try: he has a nice interplay with Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark), Lucilla's son whom he playfully teases about being able to crush not a man's skull but perhaps a boy's. Apart from that Maximus was so dour even before his family was killed, as if laughing was more painful than getting beheaded.
One thing that did bother me was the violence. It was bloodier than I remember it. Granted, that is to be expected in a film about gladiators but somehow things seemed to be almost too gory. The film also is I think far too long for its story at two and a half hours. Perhaps all the political machinations and overt suggestions of incest could have been cut.
I finally am puzzled by how dumb some of the characters are. Why would Lucius shout out when playing that he was "Maximus, the Savior of Rome?" to his uncle? That just seemed a bit too much for me to accept.
One of the famous lines in Gladiator is Russell Crowe almost taunting the crowd with "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!" Yes, I was entertained, but not overwhelmed.
2001 Best Picture Winner: A Beautiful Mind