Gladiator (2000)

Rating: ***
Release Date: 5/5/00
Director: Ridley Scott
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielson, Oliver Reed

I decided to kick off the summer movie season this year with Ridley Scott's latest Roman Empire film, and while it's a beautiful looking and well made film, I found it somewhat lacking. Maximus (Russell Crowe) is a loyal and talented general in the Roman army, conquering countless territories for the ever expanding glory of Rome. Unfortunately, misfortune befalls him and he and his family are sentenced to death. Maximus manages to escape, only to be sold as a slave and trained as a gladiator. As fate would have it, he gets his chance for revenge when he is "invited" to fight at the Roman Colosseum for the emperor (Joaquin Phoenix) who betrayed him.

All of the performances in this film are spot on. Russell Crowe gives a heartfelt performance of pained intensity. He is both savage and sentimental, and his physical performance is just as convincing as his dramatic turmoil. The troubled emperor Commodus is played with sensitivity and supreme creepiness by Joaquin Phoenix, and he makes an excellent sympathetic villain. Connie Nielson delivers the token love interest role with strength, grace, dignity, and beauty. For the most part, the cinematography is breathtaking, utilizing a rich palette of dark and moody tones, and complemented with the high contrast content of the arena battles. Hans Zimmer's score is also very strong and moody, which completes the atmosphere of the picture. Not surprisingly, it's a violent and brutal film, capitalizing on the exploitation of men locked in mortal combat. And while the action scenes are well played, I was constantly frustrated by the camerawork, which was just as chaotic and frenzied as the battles themselves. Ultra-fast shutter speeds mixed with varying film speeds and super-tight framing created scenes that were surrealistic to watch and hard to follow. This was obviously done on purpose to capture the feeling of real-time sports coverage, but I found it frustrating to watch. Ultimately, like any sports oriented movie, I left feeling unfulfilled. Much like the gladiators of the Colosseum itself, the film seems to primarily exist for the purpose of entertaining the masses by delivering glorified bloodshed. But is that enough? Does it take more than bloodshed, revenge, and social upheaval to entertain me anymore?