Russell Crowe plays Maximus, a General in the Roman Army. After winning the final battle at Germania, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) decides that Maximus should be the next Emperor after Marcus dies. This angers Marcus' son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) who had been planning on becoming the next Emperor. Before the official announcement is made, Commodus kills his father, names himself Emperor, and orders Maximus to be killed, along with Maximus' wife and son. Maximus manages to escape his execution, but his family does not. After he finds their charred and hung bodies, he passes out, and ends up being picked up by some slave trades, and eventually sold to a traveling gladiator circus (or at least that's what it felt like, a circus). Maximus is forced to fight to save his life, and along the way gets the owner of the gladiator circus and the rest of the gladiators to follow him like his old army did. When Maximus finally makes it back to the Colisseum and meets Commodus again, Maximus vows revenge for his family. There are two reasons Maximus does what he does, one is for revenge, the other is to honor the wishes of a dying man. Marcus Aurelius wanted Rome to go back to being for the people, by the people, and letting the Senate run Rome. Commodus wanted to be the ruler of the world, and only him rule the world. Commodus needed Maximus killed, because Maximus was too popular with the army, and could have easily taken over if simply banished. But as a gladiator, Maximus wins the respect of the people, and the only way to settle all of this, is a battle to the death between Maximus and Commodus.
Gladiator was a very good movie, much in the vein of Braveheart. Revenge, big battle scenes, that sort of thing. The difference is that here there isn't as much of a love story angle, but more of the revenge angle. The battle scenes here are also a lot more brutal. Much more blood and gore, people getting limbs cut off, heads cut off, being set on fire. Definitely enough violence to satisfy the blood lust in all of us. But don't go thinking this is end to end action. There are a lot of dead scenes in between the battles. There is a story line involving Commodus and his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) and their incestuous relationship. Lucilla also has a son, who is next in line for the throne, and with Commodus being as insane about power as he is, she must worry about Commodus killing her son. There is also a story line dealing with Maximus as a gladiator, and his relationship with the other gladiators. One of the other gladiators is played by the great Djimon Hounsou and the relationship between him and Maximus is an important one, with each of them convincing the other to go on, because someday soon, whether on earth or in heaven, they will meet their family again.
The one thing you don't normally expect from a "summer" action movie is good acting performances. But with a cast that includes Russell Crowe, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Djimon Hounsou, you get great action and great acting. And I'm slowly coming around to enjoying Joaquin Phoenix. Something about his older performances bothered me, but in this role he was perfect. And I'll jump on the bandwagon and say that this is the role that will finally bring Russell Crowe to mainstream America, and maybe get him some more noteworthy roles like his Oscar nominated turn in The Insider. The other thing I really enjoyed about this movie was the scenery. Whether is was real or computer generated I couldn't tell. But some of the shots of Colisseum and the surrounding town were amazing. The battle sequences were great, although I'll say for the first one right in the beginning, I thought it was a little too dark, and there were too many close ups and quick cuts for me to make out anything. But the gladiator fight scenes were done very well.
There is of course another way I looked at this film, so bear with me while I bore most of you... It may not be too much of a coincidence that this movie was heavily promoted in a joint deal with the WWF. This is what I saw. Imagine Commodus as Vince McMahon. Ruler of the WWF. Has this guy who is a bad ass fighting machine who the people love. So he does everything he can to get the guy out of his way. Throws people in front of him, throws his best fighters in front of him, but nothing can stop him. This guy fights with the best of them, can't get hurt, and the people start chanting his name over and over again. I personally think Maximus bears a strong resemblance to Stone Cold Steve Austin of a couple years ago. The baddest man on the planet, fighting to beat down the man at the top. And it all comes to a head when the two of them finally meet in the ring, face to face. OK, so maybe it's not perfect, but I thought the parallels were there.
So overall, I thought Gladiator was about as close to a perfect "summer" movie as you can get. Lots of action, lots of violence, and decent story line, some great scenery, and most of all, the ability to let you sit inside a dark, air conditioned theater for over 2 and a half hours. And you won't even realize how long you've been sitting there. And to be honest, with the temperature hitting 90 today in New York, I may go see this one again.
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