Monday, November 16, 2009

Gladiator (2000)

Gladiator has pretty much everything a movie lover could want. We're not talking about the cinephile; The hopeless soul who insists there is some fundamental difference between movies and "Films", yes capitalized and in quotes, but the straight up lover of modern movies. The average, regular movie goer couldn't ask for anything more than what Gladiator offers.

The story here is pretty familiar. The noblest of men is set for great things, but he is betrayed. Thus begins his quest for vengeance and retribution over insurmountable odds. As always, the sweeping historical epic dangles it's Oscar-bait in front of the Academy and this time it pays off big time for director Ridley Scott and his leading man. This time around, Russel Crowe, who gets the Academy Award for his work, is our hero and ancient Rome is our backdrop. After he is betrayed, and his wife and son are murdered, Maximus, Crowe, is sold into slavery and becomes a gladiator. His long journey leads him back to Rome where he must fight the evil emperor Commodus, Joaquin Pheonix, from the colosseum floor.

To analyze Gladiator from a historical standpoint is to admit that you hate fun. The movie is riddled with minor historical inaccuracies, but most are invisible to the average viewer. You should remind yourself that Gladiator is fiction. Just because it borrows it's setting and a few characters from real history doesn't mean it has to be slavishly bound to historical facts. Forget everything you know and enjoy Scott's larger than life vision of Rome for what it is; a movie that truly deserves to be called an epic.

It's difficult to find fault beyond the historical issues, so it's no surprise that people who dislike the film focus here. The movie is near flawless in all the places that matter most. From the opulent production values to the simple, yet always effective, script, the movie is a remarkable accomplishment. Even a person who knows absolutely nothing about Rome is able to understand the movie without feeling like they're getting a history lesson. The script is paced perfectly and it gives just enough information to make the characters vibrant without bogging the viewer down with too much. Gladiator's script is a case study in effective characterization. Everything we learn about the characters is vitally important and most of it we learn through action rather than unnecessary dialogue. I would also be remiss not to mention Hans Zimmer's score, which is one of my favorite scores of all time.

All of these qualities are dwarfed by Gladiator's true accomplishment though. That accomplishment is the total commitment of every actor in the film. From top to bottom, the performances in Gladiator are exceptional. While Crowe got most of the accolades, he won an Oscar for his work here, it's the supporting cast that really shines. In particular, Joaquin Pheonix, who did receive an Academy Award nomination for his work, is remarkable as Commodus. His constant intensity and commitment to the part is one of the primary reasons the movie succeeds in the ways it does. While his presence isn't quite as overwhelming or powerful as Crowe's, it's equally, if not more important, than the work of the leading man. Without Pheonix's intensity as our antagonist, Gladiator would be a much simpler and less interesting movie. He matches Crowe at every turn and he prevents the movie from becoming a one man show. The same could be said about the rest of the cast, which overachieves to match the work of Gladiator's leading men.

If you ask me, admitting you don't like Gladiator is the same as admitting that you hate to have fun at movies. It's beautiful, violent and all together breathtaking. You can't ask for anything more from a movie. Amazing visuals, constant action, effective characterization, perfect pacing and dynamic performances. It's as good as modern movies get.


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