Maximus is a powerful Roman general, loved by the people and the aging Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Before his death, the Emperor chooses Maximus to be his heir over his own son, Commodus, and a power struggle leaves Maximus and his family condemned to death. The powerful general is unable to save his family, and his loss of will allows him to get captured and put into the Gladiator games until he dies. The only desire that fuels him now is the chance to rise to the top.
It's ironic — in an Alanis Morissette kinda way — that a new breed of action hero should have been born of a film that harks back so resolutely to a past era. Not the era of ancient Rome as such, but of the Hollywood period epic which presided over the blockbuster pantheon from the days of silent cinema to the 1970s, when it was usurped by the more contemporary spectacles of blazing skyscrapers and overturned ocean liners.
Grand scale sci-fi and the FX revolution of the late 70s/early 80s effectively delivered the deathblow to the sword'n'sandal monolith. We can be grateful then that it was Scott, a director renowned for his majestic cinematic vision, who chose to breathe new life into the old war-horse. And what life it is.
After an initial period of uncertainty, Scott leapt aboard when he was shown a Victorian painting of two gladiators locked in mortal combat, the sunlight streaming into the arena and the vast crowd baying for blood. It's not hard to see what appealed to him: the intensity of the moment, the sweeping spectacle and the image itself, a portrait of a fantastically advanced society resplendent in cultural riches yet underpinned by obscene cruelty and recreational violence.
The opening battle scene, visceral, mud-spattered and drenched in blood, sets the tone. Hordes of extras crashing against each other in waves; agonising hand-to-hand combat; a deluge of flaming arrows and exploding fireballs turning the forest into a hellish conflagration; the noise and stench and chaos of the melee. And Scott puts us right in the thick of it. Brilliant use of Steadicam and stroboscopic editing give you a taste of military conflict from a time when to kill a man in battle meant standing close enough to feel his breath on your face.
The sequence is one of many stunning set pieces that punctuate the story of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Crowe), the star general of the Roman army who is betrayed by the Emperor Commodus, sold into slavery and forced to become a gladiator. Plotting revenge for the murder of his wife and child, he becomes a hero of the people, ultimately confronting his nemesis on the killing floor of the Colosseum. Originally the part of Maximus was earmarked for Antonio Banderas (that's why, presumably, he's Spanish). Banderas makes a lot of sense — he has the looks, the physicality and screen presence. But luckily, he bailed, leaving the way open for Crowe. Crowe has all the qualifications that Banderas has, but where Banderas' prowess as an action star is essentially cinematic (he looks good firing a handgun in slo-mo, basically), Crowe gives the impression that he genuinely is quite a bit harder than the average nail.
He is worlds away from the ludicrous, neo-narcissist musclemen of the 80s (Arnie, Sly et al) and doesn't fit comfortably into the mid 90s school of lithe pretty boys (Keanu, Nic Cage etc.) either. Instead, like the film itself, he's a throwback to the action stars of yesteryear. Kirk Douglas is, for several reasons, the obvious example: unconventionally handsome, athletic without being showy and, most importantly, as solid as a rock. (Douglas also played a gladiator in some film or other.) Crowe is not a big man, he certainly doesn't have a bodybuilder's physique, but in the fight scenes his victories are totally convincing, even when he's pitted against seemingly insuperable odds. The look in his eyes, wracked with pain, boiling with testosterone and burning with hate has a singular message: don't fucking mess.
The fights themselves are thrillingly orchestrated and again feature fractured, kinetic editing and dynamic camerawork. They are so exciting, in fact, particularly the one where Maximus fights the retired champion while snarling tigers hem them into the centre of the arena, you get the slightly uncomfortable feeling that the emotions they stir are not so very far removed from those experienced by the roaring crowd. Scott's Rome — part ancient metropolis, part modern Manhattan, part Speer's Nazi Berlin — are suitably awe-inspiring; Joaquin Phoenix enjoys himself immensely as the loopy Commodus and there's a host of fruity English thesps filling up the type of roles that were once the preserve of Jack Hawkins, Peter Ustinov and Larry Olivier.
David Hemmings is tremendous as the ringmaster Cassius, Richard Harris cuts the ham thick as Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Derek Jacobi (no stranger to a toga) is typically solid as a liberal senator. But of the character players it is, of course, Oliver Reed who leaves the most indelible impression. Reed died during the production, but his gruff, bravura performance as gladiator trainer Proximo is a fitting swansong and his final line of dialogue — "We mortals are but shadows and dust" — a hauntingly apt epitaph. That said, "You sold me queer giraffes!" is an even better one.
What filmmaker would not relish the challenge of rendering the dichotomy of Rome the enlightenment and discipline that conquered the world versus the cancerous corruption that destroyed it? And Scott, with Crowe, rise to the challenge with typical gusto