It’s been 17 years since the release of Gladiator, but Russell Crowe is in the midst of a fairly busy resurgence so it seems an appropriate time to revisit what is arguably his greatest project. Having been the best part of Man Of Steel, explored his comedic side in 2016’s The Nice Guys, and signed on as Dr. Jekyll in the coming reboot of The Mummy (and presumably a few films to follow), Crowe has been under the spotlight these last few years. But when we look back on the best roles of his career, it’s still Gladiator that stands out as uniquely brilliant.
For those who might need a refresher, Gladiator tells the tale of Maximus (Crowe), a Roman general who becomes an outcast hunted by his own people. After Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) unofficially names Maximus his heir, the emperor’s son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) kills his father and assumes the throne. Maximus’ family is murdered and he only narrowly escapes Roman guards before winding up on the run, being caught, and turned into a gladiator. He then fights his way up the ranks and back to Rome, where he can win the favour of the people and face Commodus once more.
Where Crowe was concerned, it was as good a performance as we’ve ever seen. Indeed, despite numerous nominations over the years it still stands as the actor’s lone Oscars win. It may also have been Ridley Scott’s best effort to date. Known for historical films, sci-fi epics, and thrillers, Scott is perhaps most closely attached to the Alien franchise. However, there’s a legitimate argument to be made that Gladiator is still his best movie.
When the film came out, the review from New York Daily News posited that it was a sword-and-sandals epic in the image of Ben-Hur and Spartacus. What’s interesting all these years later is that it now looks as if it may have been the last great movie in the genre. There have been other interesting attempts, but modern cinema’s tendency toward overblown epics, CGI armies, monsters, and deities has made for a different (and cheesier) brand of sword-and-sandals projects. Troy could possibly be counted in the same category as Gladiator, but lacks the rawness and realistic quality of Scott’s opus.
The good news is that if it was the last great sword-and-sandals movie, it’s proven to have remarkable durability. The movie itself has aged very well, and still seems to have a place in pop culture. Many will recognise quotes from Gladiator, from “what we do in life echoes in eternity” to the simple, “not yet” uttered by Djimon Hounsou toward the end of the movie. The film also retains a place in the gaming community. Casino Source’s arrangement of slot and casino games from across the internet points out that a title based on Gladiator is still available. There are a lot of online slots based on more modern movies like Marvel and DC superhero blockbusters, but a few seconds with the Gladiator reel will take you right back to the movie through music and clips woven into the game.
All in all, Gladiator still has a great deal going for it. It’s a peak performance for both the director and the star, it isn’t dated, and it still feels relevant today. Perhaps best of all, it also seems to be safe—for now at least— from any sort of reboot or forced sequel. Though an article from the Huffington Post reports that Crowe did try to get a pretty outrageous follow-up made!