It goes without saying that today’s movie business bears little resemblance to the days when he-men like Charlton Heston donned togas and mounted chariots in films like Ben-Hur. And to be honest, before Gladiator became GLADIATOR last year, the very thought of a $100 million throwback to those often-cheesy sword-and-sandal epics of yesteryear seemed not only like a deluded bit of nostalgia but also about as fiscally sound as a remake of Ishtar. But director Ridley Scott always knew he had an Aussie ace up his sleeve. ”I noticed Russell way back in Romper Stomper,” says Scott, referring to Russell Crowe’s breakout role in 1993’s portrait of a young man as a neo-Nazi skinhead. ”I just thought, This guy’s an animal. It was only later when I met him I also found out how smart and articulate he was.”
In short, Russell Crowe — the thinking man’s animal — is the reason we’re still talking about Gladiator at Oscar time. As Maximus, the fearless swashbuckling Roman general who’s reduced to fight-to-the-death slavery by Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ evil son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Crowe is a revelation of vengeance — a mix of Spartacus and Shaft. Moviegoers who had marveled at his performance as Bud White, the brutish cop with a heart of gold in L.A. Confidential, or his unrecognizably doughy (and Oscar-nominated) turn as The Insider‘s tobacco-industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, knew the 36-year-old actor possessed better chops than a Palm steak house. So it should have come as no surprise that rather than turning Maximus into yet another Hollywood action hero, Crowe paints on layers of emotional complexity that we rarely see in our celluloid alpha males: the fear of fate, the love and longing of a father and husband, and the world-weary resolve to turn destiny on its head. Crowe may have signed on to Gladiator as one of our most promising actors, but by the end credits he had become something else entirely: a star.