Gladiator was the first anticipated and then celebrated return of those historic epics from the 50s like Quo Vadis? or Ben-Hur. But being a movie of the year 2000, it was even more a spectacle than its predecessors, dropping religious themes and instead focusing on the gruesome battles in the Colosseum.
There is certainly a lot going on in Gladiator – it has a more than competent cast, special effects, an obviously big budget to spend on costumes and the scenery. Inside is the rather simple tale of the desire for revenge, coupled with greed for power, madness and the ability of the rulers to distract the people with the infamous combination of ‘bread and circuses’. But basically all signs of a real plot get buried under the fight scenes in the arena that Gladiator presents as its most valuable aspect. Because of this, I won’t deny that Gladiator is entertaining but it suffers mostly from the fact that it wants to be more than pure entertainment because whatever morality or deeper story Gladiator thinks it contains get constantly sacrificed for the sake of the battle sequences. Gladiator seems to want to accuse the people of Rome for being blind supporters of the bloody spectacles in the arena but it presents these battles in a way that never becomes any sort of statement but as pure entertainment for the audience at home and in the cinema. It could be that it wants to make the audience in the cinema a part of the crowd in the arena but all the blood, the fighting, the feeling of victory rather wants the audience as a part of the fighters, feeling the tension and enjoying the killing. It’s a strange presentation as the movie uses exactly the violence for the same reason it accuses its characters of.
The acting in Gladiator is surprisingly strong for such a movie. Russell Crowe’s Oscar win may be debatable but he does know how to carry this story and his combination of sensitivity and strong masculinity makes his a strangely compelling performance. From beginning to end, he is the movie’s strongest asset. It may not be a character performance but it’s a star performance on a very high level. Joaquin Phoenix walks a thin line between good and bad and while there are many who think that he crossed this line too often, I think he perfectly portrayed the insanity of his character without overdoing it. Connie Nelson delivers some nice emotional moments as ‘the woman’ and Oliver Reed and Richard Harris add some welcome experience to the project (on a personal note, it’s so annoying to see German actor Ralf Möller since he uses his minor part in this movie to still present himself as a German who made it in Hollywood and since the year 2000, he starts every public appearance with the words ‘I just talked to Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott’ but, of course, I won’t let my opinion of this annoying guy influence my overall opinion on Gladiator).
The Oscar win for Special Effects is probably the most baffling of its wins since the recreation of ancient Rome couldn’t look more fake. High praise goes to Hans Zimmer for his wonderful score which has already achieved the status of a modern classic – deservingly.
Yes, Gladiator is the result of the work of various very talented people and its as big as it can be while still leaving enough room for the actors to carry the story instead of being overshadowed by it. All this prevents it from being a soulless epic but it never turns into more than good, 2-hour long entertainment. Recommendable, but hardly praiseworthy.