Are you not entertained? You should be. While the script is cobbled together and shallow (reindeer stand it was being written during filming – if so, it shows) and is reliant on the life breathed into it by the players, there is plenty of life, as Russell Crowe, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi and Joaquin Phoenix do wonders for a leaden draft. Though Oliver Reed is bloated and battered as Crowe’s owner, he also gamely pitches in, though it is not surprising he died in a Malta bar during filming.
All the action sequences are riveting. From an impressive opening battle sequence in Germania, to Crowe’s first gladiatorial experience, to a great Ben Hur-ish sequence where a troupe of over-matched gladiators under Crowe’s command exceeds expectations in their first visit to the Coliseum, to a nice one-on-one between Crowe and another famed fighter, with tigers thrown into the mix . . . all were thrilling. There’s also enough of a story to get us from action sequence to action sequence.
Crowe commands the movie and seems “in time” (obviously, I couldn’t possibly know if Crowe acted like a Roman, but I assure you, it feels more authentic than Tom Cruise as a Civil War veteran or Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette). But it is Phoenix as the mad usurper who steals the movie in what could have been a throw-away performance, the weak son to the strong emperor.
I am vexed
Instead, Phoenix is genuinely touching (when he seeks his father’s favor and is spurned) and frightening (when he seeks a different kind of favor from his sister, threatening the life of her son in the process). You almost feel for the guy when the mob turns on him.