Gladiator * * * *

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Director: Ridley Scott.
Screenplay: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris, Tommy Flanagan, David Hemmings, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, Tomas Arana, Spencer Treat Clark, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Omid Djalili, Tony Curran, Michael Sheen.

When I went to see Gladiator on it’s release in 2000, I walked out the cinema bitterly disappointed. It went on to win 5 Oscars (including Best Picture) and received a further 7 nominations. This only added to my feelings of resentment towards it. As a result, I chose to avoid seeing it again and didn’t mince my words on my dislike for it. However, plenty of people – who’s opinions I respect – seemed to love it. For that reason, I chose to have a reappraisal.

During the days of the Roman Empire, dedicated soldier Maximus (Russell Crowe) loyally serves the emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). When the emperor is killed, Maximus refuses to transfer his loyalty to his son and new emperor, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and suffers the consequences. He is ordered to be killed but manages to escape, ending up in the hands of slave trader Proximo (Oliver Reed), who pits him into the Roman Colosseum as a gladiator. It’s here that Maximus realises he can still use the arena and the crowd to his benefit and plan his revenge on Commodus.

On only my second viewing of this film, my opinion has changed and changed for the better. I still have issues with it but it’s granduer is undeniably impressive and as a slice of entertainment it can’t be faulted. I can honestly admit now, that my scornful opinion of this film was slightly unjust. It was much better than I remember but still not the classic it’s proclaimed to be. For a start, it has a high tendency for melodrama. This is acceptable in some cases but with the acclimations that Gladiator has recieved over the years, I find it needs to be scrutinised a little further. One of the main causes for it’s melodramatic approach is some ridiculous dialogue. Reportedly, during production Russell Crowe himself had complaints with screenwriter William Nicholson’s dialogue, apparently telling him it was “garbage”. I found that to be the case in several scenes and when delivering it, the uncomfortableness in the actors looked apparent. However, they manage to carry it well enough; Crowe is a commanding presence in his Oscar winning role but it’s by no means his best performance. I think his abilities were better tested in previous films “L.A. Confidential” and especially “The Insider“, which he deserved the Oscar for. Phoenix is another actor I admire and he also delivers a good performance but unfortunately suffers with a poorly written and stereotypical character. He’s no more than a cartoon villain – complete with dark eye shadow – and he couldn’t really get any more nasty. Old hands, Harris and Reed phone their performances in and it looks as if Reed is just there for the beer tokens. Jacobi, however brief, shows his thespian abilities and the always excellent Djimon Hounsou is wasted in another poorly written role. There’s not a lot going on for the character’s, as ultimately, this is all about the spectacle. And a fine, grandiose one it is. With “Blade Runner” and most recently “Prometheus“, Scott has never been known to scrimp on the visual front and this is no different. It is
exquisitely detailed (kudos to cinematographer John Mathieson) and filmed in the grandest of scales. The director can’t be faulted in his ability to capture the hearts and minds of an audience and this is no more apparent than the impressively choreographed battle scenes and wonderfully ethereal afterlife sequences – shot with a highly artistic eye. Such scenes are afforded a greater power by a superb score from Hans Zimmer and the haunting vocal talents of Lisa Gerrard (for those unaware, check out her beautiful work with Australian outfit “Dead Can Dance“). On a visual and audio front, this film can’t be reckoned with but unfortunately, I found it to succumb to formula. Despite the fact that the real life Commodus did actually fight in the the gladiatorial arena, the ending stretched credulity for me but I suppose dramatic license is commonplace in film’s of this type.

I enjoyed this a far-sight more than I used to, as it’s undeniably epic and visually arresting. Essentially though, this is an action movie. A good one but not much more than an action movie dressed in the Emperor’s clothes.

Mark Walker

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38 Responses to “Gladiator * * * *”

  1. Very well written take my friend and I’m thrilled you’ve come around to this film albeit still from a distance. I’m one of the lovers of this movie. I fully concede that there are a few dialogue issues but they were never enough to hurt the movie for me. You’re right, Crowe (possibly my favorite working actor) towers with his performance although I thought he should have won an Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind”. Anyway, I was and am still a huge fan of this film and it’s one of the rare ones that I can pop in and watch anytime.

    Great review as always!

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    • Thanks Keith. Yeah, I have to admit that I found more to enjoy from this second time round. It still has glaring issues but there’s no denying it packs a bit of power. Crowe is also a favourite of mine and as good as he is here, he has been much better. “A Beautiful Mind” is certainly one of them but for me his best is still “The Insider”. Kevin Spacey was exceptionally good in “American Beauty” that year to take the Oscar but had Crowe maybe been put in the supporting actor category, I think he would have taken it.

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      • I did a Top 5 working actors not too long ago and, believe it or not, I had Crowe at the top of my list. He has such a range and he never gives a bad performance, even if the material isn’t great.

        You’re right about “The Insider” – wonderful performance. I equally loved him in Master and Commander and American Gangster. I could go on and on. Great actor.

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      • I remember when I first seen him before he was famous in “Romper Stomper”. You could tell then that this guy had ability. He’s a fantastic actor

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  2. This movie is as awesome as it gets and a great pic for Best Picture. Some will say it’s too bloody, too violent, and too masculine for that prestigious title, but that’s what makes it so great. Great review Mark.

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    • It certainly has a lot going for it Dan. It probably did deserve the best picture award that year as well but I thought it was quite a poor year for film’s. Although I think Memento came out then too and I absolutely love that. That was the best film of 2000 for me.

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  3. Phoenix is one of my favorite parts of this film. He plays the villain role so well. I’m excited to see his return in The Master, from the trailers It looks like he nails another great performance.

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    • I’m a big fan Phoenix myself and he was great in this but I think his character was a bit too villainous. It was the dialogue that was a big letdown for me but I can’t fault the performances.

      The master is definitely one to see and it will be great to have Phoenix back again.

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  4. Well well well…Look who has had a change of heart!
    You’re spot on about the script/dialog and the stiffness of the actors at times. Definitely an epic action movie with ulterior motives but I’m glad you gave this one another shot, Mark!

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    • Haha! Yeah, I put my hands up Andy and completely admit to enjoying this. I’m not ashamed to admit when I’m wrong. ;-)
      It still has it’s flaws like I mention but damn fine entertainment nonetheless.

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  5. I really get a kick out of this movie, but I was very surprised to see it take Best Picture. I felt it was more of a fun popcorn flick than Best Picture material — still perhaps a five-star film for me, but not necessarily an all-time classic, you know?

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    • I completely agree Morgan. It wasn’t best picture material for me either but I think the other films of that year were not entirely superb either. Chocolat, Erin Brokovich and Traffic were all great films from the same year but I wouldn’t give them a best picture either, so I can see why this got it. Its a good action flick but not a classic as you say.

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  6. Nice review. I’m glad that you’re warming up to it, Mark! hehe

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  7. Woo hoo!! This movie is in my top five favorite of all time Mark, so I’m glad you gave this one another shot. I did that with The Prestige and I’m glad I did as I also appreciated it more than on initial viewing.

    I really can’t find any fault for the performances, though I agree w/ you that Jacobi is my favorite of the seasoned thespians, in fact, my favorite quote from this film comes from him [http://wp.me/pxXPC-1Z6] It’s not so much what was said but his delivery is just killer!

    I LOVE Crowe’s performance but I think he should’ve won it for “The Insider“ hands down.

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    • Well, as I say in my review Ruth. Peoples opinions I respect loved this film. Yourself and others were included in that. It was great entertainment and I got right into it. The glaring problems I mention are still there for me but I could see past them this time.
      As for your Jacobi quote, that’s the very scene that stick in my head. In such a small moment, he shows his class. A true actor.

      It’s funny you mention The Prestige. I’m a big fan of Nolan but I didn’t like that either. That’s another I shall have to go back to.

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      • Yeah, Jacobi is such a fantastic Shakespearean actor, his delivery is similar to Timothy Dalton in terms of intensity, that’s why I like them both so much. I also like the part when Graccus said to Maximus, “You stay alive… or I’ll be dead.” Such a simple line but delivered by Jacobi it sounds soooo much better!

        I’m curious what you think of The Prestige on second viewing Mark, I really did not like it the first time but boy did I change my mind the second time around.

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      • Yeah, Jacobi’s been around a while and it shows. It’s almost effortless from him. It’s such a treat when you see these experienced stage actors chew up the screen. I felt the same with Vanessa Redgrave in Coriolanus. She was just wonderful and has such a grasp on the profession.

        I will get around to The Prestige again. It’s Nolan after all and it’s the only film of his that I don’t rate but I think it was more Hugh Jackman that put me off. I can’t seem to take to him. I also really liked the other magician film of that time The Illusionist and probably, unfairly, compared them.

        It looks like another re-watch coming my way. ;-)

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      • Oh I’m with you about Jackman. For me, it’s Michael Caine and Bale who are the strength of the film, though Jackman does have great showmanship that is great for his role. I can’t stand Scarlet Johansson in that one though, I wish they had cast someone else instead, but I did like Rebecca Hall. Oh I also like The Illusionist, the one w/ Ed Norton right?

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      • I really struggle with most movies that feature both Jackman and Johanssen. I don’t like either of them but I will try and see past them when I sit down to the film again.

        Yeah, The Illusionist was the Ed Norton one with Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell. I really enjoyed it and having seen it before seeing The Prestige, it was a fresher film for me.

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      • If that’s the case, you want to avoid ‘Scoop,’ the dreadful Woody Allen movie starring those two! It’s awful!! I do love Norton and Rufus Sewell, so The Illusionist is tops in my book.

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      • I normally love Woody Allen but I think I’ll take your advice on that one. I actually liked Match Point the other Woody Allen one with Johansson but I did have to try hard to block her out ;-)

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  8. It’s so inspiring to read about someone giving a movie a second shot and finding it much better than they thought. I need a push in that direction. For instance, as I mentioned elswehre, I should rewatch Synecdoche NY. Maybe I’ll understand it this time.

    As of Gladiator I watched it as it came out as well and as far as I recall I liked it a lot, even though I think I found the ending a little bit hard to digest. As if it was kind of glued onto the rest. But apart from that it was awesome.

    I have a weak spot for movies taking place in the Roman empire ever since I fell in love with I Claudius as a child (where you never get to see any gladiator arena at all, all BBC could afford was to put on a soundtrack of a cheering auidence, showing us the back of the emperor as he entered the arena!)

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    • I suppose you have to eat your words when you change your mind on a film. I certainly had to do that here. For years I slated this film but I admit that I can be wrong sometimes. I still think it was full of flaws though but I rated it quite high for it’s entertainment value.

      Ive been wanting to see I Claudius for years but can’t quite get a hold it. I too love Roman empire movies and I think thats why I didn’t like Gladiator at first. I’d seen so many good ones beforehand.

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      • I was lucky to get an edition where they also included a 70 min documentary about the making of the series, which was very interesting too.

        I need to warn you a little: the series does feel a little bit old and slow like many series from the 70s do nowadays. I noticed that on a rewatch the other year. It’s also very studio-ish. There are basically no outdoor scenes, nothing like that. I think they invested their budget in getting the best possible actors.

        But once you get into the pace I think you’ll love it. It’s classic and BBC at its best.

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      • I’ve seen little clips of it and I can see what you mean by it’s pace and budget. I don’t really mind this though as I’ve seen quite a few BBC dramatisations done during this time and I quite like that style. All be it enforced for monetary reasons. I will get round to it one day. You can’t beat some of the old BBC stuff. It’s like watching a play.

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  9. Now that’s an epica filma :D

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  10. My blog. I’d appreciate it if (anyone) could check it out:

    http://ontopicreviews.wordpress.com/

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  11. I remember seeing this in cinemas at the time and came away feeling a little bit underwhelmed. In the years since, with multiple viewings, I think this film has grown on me to the point where I thinks one of Scott’s best works, alongside Kingdom Of Heaven. Definitely, yeah, grown on me. Zimmer’s score is terrific, of course.

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    • Sounds as if we share similar experiences with this one Rodney. I couldn’t get into Kingdom of Heaven though and for me Blade Runner is Scott’s masterpiece. I don’t just think it’s his best but one of the best film’s of all time. I adore Blade Runner.

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  12. Wonderful review, Mark. I really enjoyed reading how your feelings toward it changed through the years. Like Ruth, this film marks time for me and hits a chord. Thanks for this.

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    • Thanks Michael. I had been promising a few people that I’d look at this again and I’m glad they suggested I did. It was a lot better than I remember. Still flawed for me but still good.

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  13. I saw it a couple of years ago for the first time. I liked it a lot. I’ll often wait for several years before I see those popular and Award-winning movies.

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    • That’s probably a good way to view things Russel. Letting the dust settle can allow you to approach it in your own terms. I was vastly disappointed with this at first, probably because of hype but I’ve warmed to it now.

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  14. AWESOME!! I still, probably too often, do the speech… you know the one…. Is that wrong???

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  15. I really enjoyed this movie first time out. Though I can see where it may serve mostly as popcorn fun Morgan described. Just when I thought I’d put this movie behind me, I saw Joe Pantaliono’s short-lived, crazy character on Sopranos having alot of fun quoting Maximus. This one is a fun ride for me.
    Btw, Crowe IS phenomenal in Insider.

    “Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?” -Maximus (Crowe), Gladiator

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    • Yeah, it’s more fun than a classic for me but my opinion is definitely more positive on it now than it was in the past. I can see why people regard it very highly and agree with Morgan to an extent.

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