top of page
  • DB

Movie Review | Gladiator

Maximus (Russell Crowe) and Juba (Djimon Hounsou) fight for their lives in Gladiator

Movie summary: A former Roman General sets out to exact vengeance against the corrupt emperor who murdered his family and sent him into slavery. (IMDb)

I'm going to be totally unapologetic about this: I love Gladiator. I don't think it's a perfect movie, with it being obvious on more than one occasion where they skimped on the budget to put towards more extravagant sequences. Also, some of the supporting roles aren't the best either -be it so-so performances or simply a lack of depth.

Despite these issues, I never fail to utterly enjoy this movie every time I see it. In fact, Gladiator is one of those movies that, for some reason, I always expect to not live up to how good I remember it being. This might be why I like it so much - I always manage to lower my expectations and the film then proceeds to utterly surpass them with ease.

I think a large part of that is how good it still looks despite being almost twenty years old. With Ridley Scott directing, you know you're going to get a gorgeous movie and this is no exception, but Gladiator looks so good at some points that it really does make you wonder why there haven't been more movies about the Roman Empire since then.

Even when the movie is clearly saving money on location and set work, the lighting and cinematography still manage to make it all look so much better than it really is - whether it's keeping things moving so you don't focus on the surroundings or filling the frame with the characters so you can't even see the location all that much.

The thing is, even the CGI holds up incredibly well for the most part - certain scenes aside that were an issue even when the movie was released. There are aerial shots of Rome that obviously only exist inside a computer that look better than a lot of other movies using actual locations - and the Colosseum looks staggeringly good even now.

On top of the 'cleaner' images once the story does move to Rome, there's also the phenomenal battle sequence at the start as Russell Crowe's Maximus leads his army against a barbarian tribe in what would become Germany. It's so one-sided in the Romans' favour as to be ludicrous, but is entirely thrilling from start to finish and an incredible way to start a movie.

Speaking of Maximus, Russell Crowe is so, so good in the role that - while watching the movie - I kept thinking to myself that this is his best role. Then I remember his Captain Jack Aubrey from Master and Commander and can't separate the two performances in terms of quality. Aubrey is clever and cunning, but Maximus is a ferocious force of nature - and both are Crowe at his very best.

Then there's Commodus, the antagonist of Gladiator and played to perfection by Joaquin Phoenix. Not to rag on Star Wars or Adam Driver, but Commodus is what I wished Kylo Ren was like: they're both whiny, temperamental and insecure, but Phoenix is legitimately threatening as a villain in a way that Kylo Ren isn't, despite Driver's best efforts. Commodus is just that little bit more unhinged and unpredictable enough to make you genuinely worry about what will happen to the 'heroes'.

Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and Quintus (Tomas Arana) are surprised to encounter an old friend in Gladiator

The supporting cast, however, is a bit of mixed bag. There are some good performances in well-written minor roles, but there are also some like a couple of the senators who feel like talking plot devices or are there to state the obvious and make sure the audience get what is going on. Good thing that these are only minor mis-steps and certainly not enough to dampen the experience.

Hans Zimmer's score certainly helps, adding oodles of atmosphere to scenes that could otherwise come across as flat, especially when dealing with moving the plot forwards. Instead, you're eagerly paying attention because the score is making you, perfectly enhancing these scenes. And as for the battle themes? They're so good that you've probably heard them elsewhere even if you're yet to actually watch Gladiator.

The last point I want to bring up is the difference between Gladiator and the other historical movies I've looked at recently, and why this movie excels where they don't: this is simply historical fiction, with Maximus and others the conjurings of a writer's imagination rather than actual people who have set fates that need to be played out as they actually happened.

This means that the movie can commit to telling us their story without worrying about staying entirely true to history and is all the better for it. There are historical figures here in Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, the latter of whom actually did fight gladiators (albeit in very strictly controlled circumstances), and events such as Rome becoming a Republic again. But they are there to support the story of the fictional Maximus, not to anchor the film in historical reality.

There's so much I like about Gladiator that I have to concede that I am willing to overlook some of its flaws because I enjoy the movie so much. Then again, I'd argue that's what every movie should do when there are flaws: be so good in other areas that you make the audience either forget about the lesser parts, or drown them out with a feast for the eyes and ears.

Gladiator still stands up as an incredible movie today despite being not too far off its twentieth(!) anniversary. It's a gorgeous-looking film with a phenomenal score, filled with fantastic action sequences and packed with great actors delivering outstanding performances from start to finish.


bottom of page