Russell Crowe's performance in Gladiator runs from subtle and intense. The early scenes show Maximus' underlying discomfort with his role as a soldier and general. He is intelligent, but acts more like the farmer that he is. However, on the battlefield, Crowe lets loose his intensity that comes from his desire to end the fighting to return home.
Hints of a passionate side emerge in his conversation with Connie Nielsen'sLucilla, but his drive is for his family. Crowe turns sensitive without discomfort when speaking with his surrogate father, Richard Harris'Emperor Marcus Aurelius. His intense rage emerges with his betrayal by Joaquin Phoenix'sCommodus, but he quickly channels it into the strength to escape and ride home. When he arrives too late, he becomes a broken man who drifts through his new life as gladiator.
As a gladiator, Crowe turns his intensity loose in the battles and toward the spectators. When his owner, Oliver Reed'sProximo, gives him some advice, Crowe's Maximus has a purpose again and a possible way to achieve revenge against Commodus by becoming more popular with the crowds and the people than Emperor Commodus himself.
To be honest, it's hard to say what is great about Crowe's performance other than he rarely seems out of place in any of the situations that Maximus finds himself in. Crowe is average enough to be a reluctant general who uses his intelligence, rather than a hulking Arnold or Stallone clone and yet he also has a ruthless intensity than makes his success as a gladiator equally plausible. There are few Hollywood actors who can pull off the type of emotional range that Crowe pulls off in Gladiator.
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