Published May 01, 2000The new film from director Ridley Scott (Alien) is a retro mix of old time sword and sandal movies, the British I, Claudius maxi-series and Mad Max. The plot is set in motion when Roman general Maximus, played by Russell Crowe, is made a gladiator slave after his family is slain and he himself is believed dead. All this happens as a result of Joaquin Phoenix's character, Commodus, seizing the throne and attempting to wipe out anyone who gets in his way.
The rest of the film follows Maximus's quest for revenge and his inevitable destiny to save Rome from tyranny. The film continually flashes between I, Claudius-style scenes of Roman political struggle (although you sure won't see any of that stuff in the trailers!), and hardcore, macho-to-the-max gladiator violence. I, Claudius star Derek Jacobi adds a classy touch to the non-bloody plot bits, and Joaquin Phoenix's whimpering, morally corrupt and incest-loving Caesar recalls John Hurt's Caligula from that same series. The action scenes are powerfully shot with quick cutting and lots of gore. These scenes are probably a bit too much for the faint-hearted, with more than a few dismemberments gracing the screen. One can't help but be reminded of the Mad Max series with respect to the struggle for Maximus's revenge, the Aussie actor connection(Crowe and Mel Gibson), the extreme violence and the dusty, sun baked scenery. Maximus's child is even run over, just like Max's kid, except this time it's by horses, not a muscle car.
As with any truly macho film, there are basically no female characters. The only one, Connie Neilson's Lucilla, is, unfortunately, played a little like ineffectual wallpaper. Of special note is Great British Drinker Oliver Reed's final performance as the former gladiator/current slave master (he died while on location). Other Great British Drinker Richard Harris also turns in a good, fatherly performance as the dying Caesar Marcus Aurelius. All in all, this is a highly entertaining two and a half hours of old fashioned (albeit violent) filmmaking, with Russell Crowe turning in a steely-yet-vulnerable performance.