At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Gladiator “00”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Epic Historical Drama/ Stars: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris, Ralf Möller, Tommy Flanagan, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, Tomas Arana, Spencer Treat Clark, David Hemmings, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Omid Djalili, Giannina Facio, Giorgio Cantarini, Adam Levy/ Runtime: 155 minutes

Amongst the eras that mankind has been a force to be reckoned with on this planet, there is one time in particular that was truly unlike any other. A time where one of the finest and biggest empires mankind has ever known was ruler of the vast majority of the planet and regardless of the fact that it was a world made up of more “ancient technology” and the amount of knowledge we as a species knew far less than the world today, the very same pathos, ideas, likes, and dislikes were still able to help people make decisions in literally every moment of their existence. However with not as much knowledge or comprehension as there is today also came increased peril for those not as well-off as others. To that end, the world of Ancient Rome became a place where the upper class could prey on those under them and even go so far as to buy them not only to use as labor, but for their own sadistic pleasure to do with as they pleased. Among this group, and brought together from all over Rome’s vast empire came a group known as gladiators. These were men who were charged with fighting one another till one was dead. Not for the glory of God or for honor or pride in one’s country mind you, but rather for others to enjoy and for the right to simply live one more day. Suffice it to say this was a time where rather than earn a contract deal and have memorabilia made of them and their achievements to say nothing of earning virtually no product endorsement deals whatsoever, these were athletes who were bought and sold and then fought each other and often times died quite brutally whilst being watched and cheered on by those who either financially gained from their demise or who just simply loved the thrill of the kill. Indeed, as we are able to see in iconic film helmer Sir Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winner Gladiator, the world of the gladiator was one that was visceral, gory, and relentlessly unforgiving….and also the kind of material from which a legend can truly be born from. Yet when placed in the hands of one of the most distinct helmers of the past 6-plus decades and a truly talented cast in front of and behind the camera, it also manages to transform into something truly amazing and quite extraordinary thus making for one of the finest films of the year 2000.

The plot is as follows: Gladiator takes us all the way back to that long-gone year known as 180 A.D. and where we quickly find ourselves key witnesses to the Roman Empire as it is in the midst of wrapping up a conflict with a group of tribes from Germania (you could say Oceania, but George Orwell wasn’t alive yet). Thus we soon see that the leader of the final strike, and thus bringer of yet another W for the Roman home team is our main character, one General Maximus Decimus Meridius. Indeed here is a man who, despite being seen by the vast majority of Roman citizens as the country’s finest military officer, but whose skill in conflict and humble manner at home has managed to acquire him the respect of none other than the Roman Emperor himself. In fact it is the ailing Emperor, who we come to see loves our hero as the son he never had, who pleads with him to do one more thing for him before getting to live life with his wife and son in peace.  To that end, we learn the Emperor would like Maximus to take his place as the protector of the Roman Empire by annihilating from their land the corruptive influences that have begun to take hold and thus stave off the inevitable decay and ruin of Rome for at the very least a little while longer. Yet things soon take a turn for the worse when the Emperor’s stubborn and belligerent son hears about dear old Dad’s desire to make Maximus Emperor over him. Thus we see that, out of a horrific storm of jealousy and envy, the son decides to “deal with” his dad and, before his dad’s wishes can become public makes himself Emperor and orders for Maximus, and his wife and child to be executed. Yet even though Maximus is able to get away, we soon learn that his son and wife unfortunately were not so lucky. Having lost the will and desire to live, we soon see that Maximus is captured and sold to a former gladiator by the name of Proximo to train and become a gladiator himself. Yet even though our intrepid hero at first wants nothing to do with any of this, it isn’t long before his talents become known due to having to defend himself from almost-certain death courtesy of his foes inside the ring. As a result we soon see Maximus become a sort-of folk hero amongst the people known only as  “The Spaniard,”, but when the Emperor’s son wishes to learn just who this champion of the people truly is, he is stunned to learn not only who he is, but just what he is planning to do. Thus the stage is set for a conflict between one man who continues to try and keep his grip of tyranny on the land and another to continue to wield his sword in the hope that one day it be driven into the heart of the man that wronged him so and took that which he considered most precious to him in the whole world……

Now it should be noted that Gladiator really truly is a fine, old-school story revolving around revenge, but constructed around a visceral and ruthless entry in the action genre that completely shook up the Oscars back in 2001. By that, I mean this is a film that by the end of the night managed to come away with at least a quintet of trophies to its name including Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Actor, and being named the Best Picture of 2000 (not a bad honor really). Yet while this is a film that while most definitely worthy of being called at the least a nominee, this film did in all fairness find itself near the top of the releases that year due to not really having any true competition, with the exception perhaps of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to really go up against. Be that as it may be though, this is a film that despite feeling like a throwback to the equally as iconic entry in this particular subgenre that is the Kirk Douglas-starring Spartacus from 1960, this dynamic duo of films also are not entirely of the same mold as it were. Indeed even though yes both of these iconic slices of cinematic pie are epics both in regards to the scope of the film and their respective runtimes, Gladiator is one that plays with a truly kinetic visual pace that feels more like the film Black Hawk Down, which Scott also incidentally helmed, rather than a film Scott made earlier on like say Alien from 1979 or Blade Runner from 1982. There is a drawback to this kinetic and energetic style though and that is the fact that this does often get in the way of the inherent narrative-regaling talents and the beautiful camerawork that the film presents us with. As a result you do get the distinct vibe that these potent thematic ingredients are having to compete with, rather than work in harmony with, the action beats the film presents us with. Be that as it may be though, this film still does work on several powerfully well levels with the main one being as a truly epic entry in the Action genre of movie magic with a truly iconic cast of characters and several top-flight performances that help to nullify the visual work and reinforce the pathos center of the film.

To that end, it should be noted that the finest thing that this film has going for it is iconic thespian Russell Crowe in the lead role. Indeed this may have been in the aftermath of his powerful roles in both L.A. Confidential in 1997 and The Insider in 1999, but Crowe manages to show another facet to his acting abilities in this film by managing to brilliantly blend together action and pathos even if the rest of the movie struggles on that front. Just as crucial to that however is the fact that his work in this is not only sincere, but his grief realistic, his humility at what he has accomplished seemingly genuine, and his quest for vengeance surprisingly pure and driven by a code of honor that really doesn’t make that difficult to root him. Also providing truly incredible roles in this are thespians Richard Harris and Oliver Reed who tragically died as shooting of the film was on-going. Indeed as the Emperor, Harris’s work in this manages to almost match up with Crowe’s in regards to depth and the seemingly genuine integrity and feeling of goodwill that his character showcases is brilliantly brought out. Indeed Harris and Crowe might not have a lot of scenes together, but the ones this dynamic duo do have not only easily show the finer pathos ingredients to be located in the film, but also a seemingly organic bond shared by love of country and immense respect between the two that is showcased beautifully. To that end, Reed’s work in this also manages to truly impress to the point that his character in this perhaps the most intriguing due his arc giving him the ability to show a variety of facets to this man as he finds his life intertwining with that of our hero. Beyond this trinity of men we also get powerhouse work from a support cast which includes a slimy yet great turn by Joaquin Phoenix, and powerful yet understated turns from both Connie Nielsen and Djimon Hounsou. Indeed I think it is definitely easy to say that film helmer Ridley Scott most definitely knows how to get the best from a cast and this film is most certainly proof of that. Finally it should be noted that whilst the script for this film might not be as pathos driven or as riveting as other epics like it, it is still one that has managed to stand up to this day and manages to give to both its cast of characters and the thespians playing them the chance to show that perhaps there is more to them beyond just whatever there may be simply on surface level.

All in all it is safe to say that the film Gladiator is one that chooses to present to movie goers a quite simplistic narrative, that of a single guy’s unyielding hunt for vengeance, but then makes sure to add quite a fair amount of combat, political intrigue, and even some romance into the mix along the road this film travels to its conclusion. Indeed the idea of seeking revenge on someone who has hideously wronged you is a narrative that has always been around in the world of culture from literature to film and is one that with the right people working on it really can make for some of the finest stories out there with The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Revenant being two noteworthy examples that I can think of. Suffice it to say that the film Gladiator is also one and then some. Indeed here is film that, besides being a winner of the coveted Best Picture Oscar and just a darn good film period, is one that manages to succeed despite a truly distinct frenzied style that often deters from the riveting action thanks in large part to both a terrific narrative and even finer performances from a phenomenal cast. As a result, I can say that Gladiator truly does manage to entertain now and most likely always will. On a scale of 1-5 I give Gladiator a solid 4 out of 5.