It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this and I felt like watching it again. It feels a bit pointless reviewing it, because who hasn’t already seen this? Even beleaguered girlfriends were dragged to the cinema to watch it at the time.
I saw it first at the cinema and the impact it made back then was huge. A truly inspiring story of a disgraced Roman General, Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) – although really he was the victim of the scheming of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the new Roman Emperor. Maximus is left for dead, sees his family killed, is sold into slavery and then becomes a gladiator. As part of a gladiatorial troupe he then returns to Rome where he may or may not get his revenge.
The film hasn’t dated much, although it occasionally feels a little over earnest in places and at times rushed – but then there is a lot to fit in. There are also many scenes to enjoy which have since become iconic. To give one example : early on in Maximus’ career as a gladiator he enters the arena alone and kills all of the opposition’s gladiators quickly and efficiently, throws down his sword and turns to the subdued crowd and shouts “What’s the matter? Are you not entertained?”. They want to see killing of course but they also want to see a show.
Crowe is superb as Maximus, and in many ways this was his breakthrough performance as a Hollywood leading man. He carries weight in his words and actions, and his emotions are as often expressed by what he does not say as by what he does.
Phoenix is also very impressive as the cowardly, often childlike, yet ruthlessly scheming Commodus. He desires his sister, kills his father and craves absolute power for himself. He is a true movie villain, weak and vulnerable but clever and dangerous.
Many years after it’s release – 13 years now – this is still a great film. At the time it felt almost like a spiritual sequel to the similarly iconic Sparticus. It has the classic moments, the epic sweep, huge action scenes, and the weight to rival that film. If you haven’t seen it for a while you should definitely watch it again. 8/10