Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.
Hear that crescendo of groans? Those are film snobs still rankled by 2000’s Gladiator taking a Best Picture Oscar over Traffic. Strangely, Gladiator has acquired a reputation as a dimwitted action movie that lucked into the prize.
Yes, swords slice stomachs like knives through soft bread. “At my signal, unleash hell” became the chant of overambitious high-school quarterbacks everywhere. And Russell Crowe is as believable a Spaniard here as Charlton Heston was a Mexican in Touch of Evil.
But director Ridley Scott (acceptably paroled from movie jail after G.I. Jane) took greater interest in entwining an empire’s intrigue with its people’s turmoil than emphasizing bread-and-circus brutality.
Some thought Gladiator’s intrigue deflated when Maximus (Crowe), a betrayed general turned gladiator, doffed headgear mid-movie in Rome’s Colosseum to face his tormentor, Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, gleefully repugnant), who believed him dead.
Contrarily, it ramped up tension and discourse about whether entertaining distractions from Rome’s destruction or ideals of progressiveness and reform would win out. Although Crowe’s Oscar win was partially a make-good on his snub for The Insider, his performance is more complex, personally pained and politically conflicted than he’s given credit for.
Throw in operatic orchestration of familial tragedies, Hans Zimmer’s rousing score and supporting turns from Derek Jacobi, the late Oliver Reed and the late Richard Harris that fed dramatic questions of which mandate would succeed, and Gladiator triumphed as a meaty, not meat-headed, historical epic.