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Set in the year 180 AD, the film follows the saga of General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) as he is betrayed by Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) after the latter murders his father, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (when he revealed to Commodus that he was going to restore the Republic). Maximus is sent to be executed when he discovers what Commodus has done but he manages to escape and races back home, only to discover that his wife and son have been brutally murdered, his home burned to the ground.
Maximus is subsequently captured by slavers and becomes a gladiator in a backwater town of the Empire. Meanwhile, Commodus has returned to Rome and proceeds to enjoy life as an Emperor, giving the people an unending stream of “bread and circuses” so that no one notices that he’s really a terrible ruler.
Phoenix’s performance as the slowly-going-mad Emperor is really spine-chilling at times. He comes off as slightly buffoonish in the beginning, but once he really begins to go mad (I’m thinking of the scene where he threatens to kill his nephew unless his sister does whatever he wants), he’s quite terrifying.
Of course Maximus inevitably makes his way to Rome as a gladiator, to fight in the great Colosseum. He vainly attempts to hide his identity (fearing that he’ll be killed on the spot if recognized), but the Emperor demands to know who he is, leading to one of the greatest movie lines of all time:
My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the TRUE emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.
And vengeance he gets, though not without paying the ultimate price in return.
The score for this brilliant film was composed by the legendary Hans Zimmer. Some have noted that the music in many battle scenes bears a distinct resemblance to the music from “Mars: The Bringer of War” composed by Gustav Holst (so much so in fact that at one point the Holst Foundation sued Zimmer on the grounds that he had plagiarized Holst’s work). Also, Commodus’s triumphal entry into Rome contains music that seems to evoke two of Richard Wagner’s operas “The Rhine Gold” and “Twilight of the Gods.”
It’s been a while since I watched this movie, but it is indeed a modern classic that everyone should see at least once in their lives.
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