A man robbed of his name and his dignity strives to win them back, and gain the freedom of his people, in this epic historical drama from director Ridley Scott. In the year 180, the death of emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) throws the Roman Empire into chaos. Maximus (Russell Crowe) is one of the Roman army's most capable and trusted generals and a key advisor to the emperor. As Marcus' devious son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) ascends to the throne, Maximus is set to be executed. He escapes, but is captured by slave traders. Renamed Spaniard and forced to become a gladiator, Maximus must battle to the death with other men for the amusement of paying audiences. His battle skills serve him well, and he becomes one of the most famous and admired men to fight in the Colosseum. Determined to avenge himself against the man who took away his freedom and laid waste to his family, Maximus believes that he can use his fame and skill in the ring to avenge the loss of his family and former glory. As the gladiator begins to challenge his rule, Commodus decides to put his own fighting mettle to the test by squaring off with Maximus in a battle to the death. Gladiator also features Derek Jacobi, Connie Nielsen, Djimon Hounsou, and Oliver Reed, who died of a heart attack midway through production.
A big-budget summer epic with money to burn and a scale worthy of its golden Hollywood predecessors, Ridley Scott's Gladiator is a rousing, grisly, action-packed epic that takes moviemaking back to the Roman Empire via computer-generated visual effects. While not as fluid as the computer work done for, say, Titanic, it's an impressive achievement that will leave you marveling at the glory that was Rome, when you're not marveling at the glory that is Russell Crowe. Starring as the heroic general Maximus, Crowe firmly cements his star status both in terms of screen presence and acting chops, carrying the film on his decidedly non-computer-generated shoulders as he goes from brave general to wounded fugitive to stoic slave to gladiator hero. Gladiator's plot is a whirlwind of faux-Shakespearean machinations of death, betrayal, power plays, and secret identities (with lots of faux-Shakespearean dialogue ladled on to keep the proceedings appropriately "classical"), but it's all briskly shot, edited, and paced with a contemporary sensibility. Even the action scenes, somewhat muted but graphic in terms of implied violence and liberal bloodletting, are shot with a veracity that brings to mind--believe it or not--Saving Private Ryan, even if everyone is wearing a toga. As Crowe's nemesis, the evil emperor Commodus, Joaquin Phoenix chews scenery with authority, whether he's damning Maximus's popularity with the Roman mobs or lusting after his sister Lucilla (beautiful but distant Connie Nielsen); Oliver Reed, in his last role, hits the perfect notes of camp and gravitas as the slave owner who rescues Maximus from death and turns him into a coliseum star. Director Scott's visual flair is abundantly in evidence, with breathtaking shots and beautiful (albeit digital) landscapes, but it's Crowe's star power that will keep you in thrall--he's a true gladiator, worthy of his legendary status. Hail the conquering hero! --Mark Englehart