Gladiator Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    Gladiator Review
    “What we do in life ... echoes in eternity.”

    Anyone that knows me - and even those who have seen the hints littered throughout my earlier reviews - will already know that Gladiator is my all-time favourite movie. When I first saw it on release day at the cinema it literally floored me - its combination of visual splendour, breathtaking action and the hauntingly beautiful story that propelled it, captivating me so completely that my enthusiasm for it has since become an addiction. From 50ft long vinyl banners and SPQR tattooed upon my arm (I won't go as far as to carve it off with a sharp stone, though) to actual prop swords and costumes from the film itself, my obsession for this sweeping epic of revenge and fateful redemption has not diminished with time. It still rouses me and profoundly moves me with every single viewing and it is viewed often. So, it should come as no surprise that, in my opinion anyway, this new release of the Expanded Edition of Gladiator, with its Colosseum-full of bonuses, is my Holy Grail of DVDs. Reviewing it is not as easy as you might think, though. I know this film so well that putting my thoughts down about it is akin to reviewing a loved one, or a best friend. How can I be objective about something so dear? Where do I start? And, perhaps more importantly for one of my review, where do I end?

    “At my signal ... unleash Hell!”

    Well, to begin with, let's assume that we all know the story - glorious Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe at his most spectacularly intense), loved by the ailing Emperor Marcus Aurelius(a fine Richard Harris) falls foul of Caesar-wannabe Commodus (young upstart Joaquin Phoenix) and ends up fighting for his life in the bloody arena. The story of the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator and the gladiator who then defied an emperor is painted against a huge canvas of the ancient world of Roman might, its majesty and its cruelty depicted with a retina-scorching level of detail and conviction by the cinematic master of immersive world-creation, Sir Ridley Scott. Yet, the tale coursing throughout the sweeping narrative is actually much smaller and more intimate than the visual excess would have you believe - the simple odyssey of a noble and courageous man who merely longs to go home to his wife and son. It's an unusual, and even dangerous, pitch. I don't mean the gamble of making a big scale, historical, sword and sandal drama in the midst of Hollywood's most shallow and regurgitative period - but rather the overtly bleak and upsetting first act that sees the tragically flawed heir to the throne, Commodus, not only slay his own father to pave his way to power, but order the execution of Rome's mightiest and most loyal warrior, and even slaughter the poor man's family, to boot. This is deeply harrowing stuff, a gut-punch that will take monumental effort by all concerned to see that we get righteous and emotionally resonant payback by the end, and that it is done convincingly. At least we didn't see them slay his amazing dog, Bonius. That would have been too much. It's certainly an old and well-worn theme - the haunted, lone hero who has lost everything and must battle against the odds to achieve some semblance of salvation, but the style with which it is delivered is unique and inspiring. The team-up of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe ensuring that not a moment goes by without the senses being stirred or overwhelmed.

    “A people should know when they're conquered.”

    “Would you, Quintus? Would I?”

    The big moments are plentiful, rich and immensely satisfying, everything backed up by Hans Zimmer's incredible melting-pot fusion of exotic world music, pounding percussive action and Wagnerian pomp and grandeur. Regular collaborator Lisa Gerrard provides some genuinely ethereal and lamenting vocals, too, that give the soul a thorough trembling. The awesome battle in the frozen mud of Germania pitches us violently into the terrifying world of hack 'n' slash, face to face combat with a gritty and marvellously atmospheric authenticity. Immediately, Scott takes us by the scruff of the neck and literally hurls us into the limb-lopping thick of it as the barbarians charge down the slope into the CG-swelled ranks of war-hardened Romans. I still wish they'd added a few more of the hulking, hairy savages though, because their army definitely looks a bit thin on the ground once battle is joined. The comparisons to the Omaha beach landings of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan are well-founded, however. With frame-jumping editing and kinetic hand-held camerawork that heightens the realism and the confusion of such fierce warfare, the barrage of imagery is instantly compelling and brutally addictive. The flaming arrow bombardment and pots of burning oil add a twist that we've never seen done this effectively before, and don't forget to check out the double-impalement of two tribesmen on a massive spear for sheer oomph! value.

    “You get the Battle of Carthage.”

    “You mean the massacre of Carthage.”

    Each and every arena skirmish, from the dusty, flea-infested provincial bouts to the Premier League in the Cathedral of Carnage, itself, the Colosseum in the heart of Rome, carry a visceral, nerve-twitching excitement that would have even the most kind-hearted, old grandmother baying for blood. Maximus taking on six heavily armoured gladiators at once remains my favourite billing - from the Spaniard's confident stride down the tunnel to pig-head's two-sword decapitation, this is an absolutely scintillating display of interpersonal mayhem, and the former general's arrogant taunting of the crowd after his swift victory is simply electrifying. “Are you not entertained?” Hell, yes! Do it again, Max! Do it again! The chain-fight that sees Maximus's gladiatorial debut is a galvanising rush of impact-heavy super-violence - Hagen's brute strength as indomitable as his ferocious Germanic pride, Juba's instinctive hunter's prowess aiding our champion as they take on all-comers. But, of course, the chariot battle with its gold-armoured, Amazonian warrior-women and Maximus's thrilling act of stealing the show by simply not dying probably provides the most audience-thrilling spectacle. He does indeed “Win the crowd,” as gladiator-trainer Proximo advises him.

    “My name is Gladiator.”

    Yet, the slower moments are just as riveting at the frenzied set-tos. Maximus's quiet contemplation of the robin just before the battle, his heart swelling as he regains the precious figurines of his family from loyal servant Cicero (the great Tommy Flanagan), Commodus gently caressing the alabaster bust of his father and just about any image of the afterlife - who doesn't want to drift away on Scott's beautiful liquid cloud as it pours through the dream-sky? Even the Senate politics are never boring - Commodus's pure petulance (that lip was God-given for the role, wasn't it?) making every scene he is in a bizarre tightrope-act between wince-inducing arrogance and fearsome brooding. He might be just a big sulky kid, but I wouldn't want to be around him when he's “terribly vexed.”

    “Still afraid of the dark, brother?”


    The performances are all fantastic, and shot through with a sterling conviction to character that eliminates all staginess and the wallowing Shakespearian traits that many may have expected. Richard Harris has many wonderful moments and brings an aged weariness to the part of an emperor who has known virtually no peace throughout his reign as Caesar - “... please, please don't call me that.” The touching moment when he invites Maximus (the son he believes he should have had) to talk of his home lends a gravity to the role that leaves his spirit felt long after his smothering by Commodus. I love that little look he gives when he wonders how the world will remember him “... the tyrant?” and his cheeky Steptoe-grin when he asks for another blanket. Connie Nielsen manages to keep the lovelorn Lucilla a believably strong, yet achingly vulnerable, manipulator and victim, all at once. She, perhaps, benefits the most from this extended cut with a scene reinstated that sees her finally agree with Derek Jacobi's plotting Gracchus that her decadent, and incestuous, brother must be killed. This fully allows her character to complete the arc that sees her first as playful flirt with old flame Maximus, through the dignified horror of her father's suspicious death and the reserved terror she feels for the safety of her own son from the despicable Commodus, to fateful accomplice in a deadly game of political skulduggery. Her nobility at the end - “He was a soldier of Rome, honour him,” - feels more rounded now, her journey to get to this point as challenging as that of Maximus.

    “Strength and honour.”

    But, of course, the towering performance that anchors the whole thing to its core, is from Russell Crowe. Now, let's differentiate here ... Russell Crowe, the man, has proved himself to be quite an idiot on far too many occasions now for even myself, his once staunchest fan, to defend but, Russell Crowe, the actor, remains an incredibly powerful force of nature who can inhabit a character more completely and more defiantly than anybody else on the planet. Well, Christian Bale comes a very close second but Crowe, especially here in the Oscar-winning role that he will be remembered for forever, commands the attention like nothing else before, or since. His performance is so magnetic, so intense - scaling the heights of rampaging testosterone and yet also managing the quieter moments of haunting grief and soul-clutching despair with heartrending ease - that you simply cannot take your eyes off him. His journey is fraught with trauma, with deception and death, but Crowe ensures that we are with him every step of the way, willing him on, yet understanding all along, as he does, that there can only ever be one possible outcome. From the famous snot-filled discovery of his crucified family, through the raw hate he exhibits when Commodus baits him later on about their deaths, to the transcendental euphoria of finally finding home again, at the gates of Elysium, Crowe delivers what I honestly believe is the one of the best performances I have ever seen. Check out the flickering of his eyes when he tries to refocus on Quintus after he has just seen his family in the afterlife. Or the reserved joy that bubbles just beneath his expression when Lucilla's son, Lucius, beckons him over. You can believe this man could lead armies into hellish war. You can believe the pain he feels at missing his home - “Kitchen smells of herbs in the daytime, jasmine in the evening,” - and his longing just to return to those he loves. Though duty crushes him, his dedication to Rome is an all-too tangible fire burning deep within him. “Yet you have never been there. You have not seen what it has become.” To all his detractors - and their ranks swell with every headline he makes - Russell Crowe gives this role more than any other actor, living or dead, ever could, ensuring that Maximus is now an indelible icon.

    “We mortals are but shadows and dust, Maximus ...”

    Oliver Reed's mighty swansong is perhaps the perfect epitaph for the talented rogue. As the gladiator who gained his freedom a long time ago, Reed gives Proximo a calculated air of gruff indifference to the suffering of his human stock that turns full circle when he realises the potential for fortune he has with Maximus, and gasps out his recollections of what it was like in the arena back in his day to his prized protégé. “Fifty thousand Romans watching every movement of your sword ... waiting for you to make that killer blow.” Look at his eyes misting over as he relives his former glory, Reed is really seeing it in his mind's eye. In others, this could have been melodramatic overkill, but Reed senses the boundaries and keeps his bravura just the right side of intoxicating. And if that last flame of fury he sees in Maximus is dedicated to raising the Colosseum to the ground - then so be it. His change of heart towards the end is not ill-fitting or shoe-horned in, for he sees the end and, without the Games, he knows he is nothing. Destiny, as with every other character in this intense drama, cannot be thwarted.

    “I will see you again. But not yet. Not yet.”

    So, what of this extended cut? Does it better an already excellent movie? Yes, quite simply, it does. As Ridley Scott points out in his three-minute Introduction, this is still not a Director's Cut, just a version with a few more scenes put back in that we might like to see. With roughly seventeen minutes of extra footage seamlessly integrated back, we are now permitted a little more political scheming, a gory visit to a Roman army hospital, the terrific Praetorian execution exhibiting the depths of Commodus's mania, and we get to meet in more detail the poor, reluctant gladiator who wets himself before the chain-fight, as well as more pre-friendly Hagen strutting his stuff. There are many more insertions but I don't want to spoil them all for you. Most, you will perhaps have seen already in the deleted scene collection on the original 2-Disc release, but some are just little snippets here and there that just add more atmosphere. Sadly, there is no more action. One fault that I always felt with the movie was the speed at which Maximus gained fame as a gladiator. We see him survive his first fight and then the next time we see him enter the arena he is a known hero, already leagues ahead of his colleagues. Despite the many battles throughout the film, I really thought it was necessary to have just one more to show his skills and his notoriety growing. However, this has been quite neatly addressed with the awesome Oliver Reed chastising him before the six-on-one fight for always killing too quickly. Again, this will be familiar to those who've seen the earlier set of deletions, but it does add a little more relevance because now, and in context, you get the feeling that Maximus has been round the block a few times. Of course, this all leads up to the fantastic “Are you not entertained?” speech.

    “Now we are free ...”

    Gaff-lovers will be pleased to note that Scott has not tinkered with the numerous errors in the movie with any sort of digital jiggery-pokery. The air canister in the back of the chariot, the bloke wandering about the Roman army camp in his jeans and, my personal favourite, the barbarians who can quite plainly be seen chatting amiably away to their Roman enemies right in the thick of the war-zone, amongst many others, are all still there to be savoured. Ahhh well, the magic of the movies, eh?

    Remember, what we say in reviews ... echoes in the forums. Strength and Honour.

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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