Gladiator put Russell Crowe on the map and rightly so. Crowe is Maximus, a heroic Roman general, disgraced for keeping his honour by the psychotic new emperor who succeeded the throne on treacherous circumstances. Stripped of rank and robbed of his family, he barely keeps his life only to be enslaved during the course of his wanderings and made a gladiator.
As a gladiator, Maximus slowly regains his will to live as he fights to survive in the arena, eventually returning to his Rome as both a slave and fighter, unknown to the Emperor. Joaquin Phoenix does a fantastic turn as a clearly disturbed and volatile Emperor, spoiled and domineering. His performance clearly shines above the rest and even the script despite Russell being the star of this epic.
I loved the film for the message more than anything in the plot, dialogue or even action. It is about a man unchained from slavery by remaining true to his spirit and principles to overcome what fate puts before him. Power is relative and fluid. A general stripped of his rank becomes a slave and an Emperor is helpless in front of a jeering mob, yet inner strength and perseverance triumphs.
Although Russell makes a good turn in this film there really isn’t much in the dialogue that really captures the dramatic depth he’s developed in the years since this film. The vice and virtue of this story is that it is simple, not only the plot, but the characters. All their actions stay true to their principles, never wavering, and that actually allows the viewer to feel the repercussions in all its glorious beauty and depth as these differing values clash furiously.
Maximus frees the gladiators he comes to command, not by strength or power but by virtue, and ultimately sets them free by starting with their spirit.