If only Peter Jackson hadn't come along and done a rather good trilogy of films, we might possibly be talking about the greatest film of the 21st Century so far. Its sweeping but simplistic heroic tale, crunching fight scenes, award-winning special effects, towering acting and soaring score set this film apart from all the pretenders that followed it. Ridley Scott single-handedly re-invented the epic genre with this story of a Roman solider who is betrayed, loses everything and is sold into slavery, only to fight his way back as a gladiator, all the while driven by vengeance for his murdered family.
Russell Crowe gives quite simply the performance of a lifetime as the Gladiator Maximus, one that deservedly won him Best Actor at the 2000 Academy Awards (although his performance in the following year's Beautiful Mind was arguably even better, even if it didn't win him his second consecutive Oscar), and provided a thinking woman's alternative to the likes of Pitt, Cruise and Clooney to swoon over. His gravely voice and impressive physique combine to give him a huge presence, which literally fills the screen. His dialogue is sparing, but his actions speak far louder, adding a stoic sadness to his vengeance-driven heroic character. Before Gladiator, Crowe was a good secondary actor; after Gladiator he was catapulted to the top of Hollywood's A-list, and remains there, thanks to this career-making performance proving him to be one of the finest actors of his generation.
Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic as the scheming and corrupt Emperor Commodus who betrays Maximus and has his family killed. He manages to be delightfully and totally evil without ever descending into the realms of pantomime villain, which is a tricky line to walk, and manages to avoid being overshadowed by Crowe's monumental performance.
The fight scenes are rousing and superbly choreographed, in particular a scene where Maximus marshals his fellow slaves into an army against marauding chariot archers in the Colosseum. The dialogue is kept simple and never overbearing (no need to worry why all of Europe speaks the same language) and culminates in one of the most memorable pieces of script that is destined to join the ranks of 'Play it Sam' and 'Are you talking' to me' as one of the most quoted (and misquoted) lines in movie history although it is rather wordy. But here it is, in full; 'My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius. Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true Emperor Marcus Aurelius; Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.' As Crowe turns to the Emperor in the arena and delivers this line, it proves to be one of the most electrifying moments in cinema history hairs will stand up, spines will tingle, guaranteed.
The action is set to some truly beautiful music, and it is shameful Hans Zimmer missed out on the Oscar for Best Score. Ridley Scott was similarly unlucky in the Director category.
The film is however tinged with sadness, as it proved to be the final (but triumphant) swansong for the careers of Oliver Reed and Richard Harris, both of whom died shortly after making this film. Neither could have delivered much finer performances, and if any performance had to be a final one, both delivered one worthy of such a status here. Reed in particular is a revelation, reminding older generations and showing a new generation of his considerable talent.
An inspiring film, rousing, exhilarating, exciting and moving. Superbly acted, directed, scored and visualised. A tribute to how great films could be once, and could be again.