Down the Years with Russell Crowe

After watching Russell Crowe in Noah a while back it occurred to me that he has played quite a few ‘historical’ roles over the course of his career, so here is a selection of Crowe films that I’ve watched recently (recently meaning within the last twelve months).

Gladiator (2000)

This is the film that made Crowe into a superstar and won him an Oscar. Directed by Ridley Scott, it’s a sandal and sorcery outing that has the feel of fantasy to it, offset by the fact that much of it was historically accurate (e.g. there was an emperor Commodus who fought in the Roman arena, though he wasn’t killed in the Coliseum). Crowe as Maximus is the favourite general of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wishes him to attain to the purple, but blood heir Commodus nips this in the bud. Maximus escapes death, but ends up as a slave and competing in gladiatorial games where he naturally excels, achieving popularity with the public. All roads lead to Rome, and once there it is only a matter of time before Maximus and Commodus come face to face in the arena. From a plot point of view this is pretty much as predictable as they come, a template plot – good man in disgrace thanks to the malice of an enemy, achieves redemption through his personal efforts. What makes it special is the sheer lavishness and scale of the battles and fights that take place, so that everything is cranked up to the max. Crowe looks the part – two parts warrior to one part family man. Plunged into despair by the murder of his family, he learns to care again thanks to the rough and ready camaraderie of the gladiators, and from then on he is driven by the desire for revenge. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as the decadent Commodus, someone who knows he will never be good enough, no matter what he achieves, and has to constantly prove himself in the arena (though not without the odds in his favour). And, in an accomplished cast, Oliver Reed stands out in his final performance as a crotchety master of gladiators. Kudos to Scott and Crowe for taking such an obvious and sentimental story, and turning it into a thoroughly entertaining film, one that is never less than visually enthralling and delivers by giving us just what we want when we need it most.

Robin Hood (2010)

And the same pair who made Gladiator such a success fail dismally with this venture into English history. For the first part it plays a bit like a Norman version of Somerville with humble archer Robin Longstride (Crowe) returning to England from France after giving King Richard a piece of his mind and masquerading as the dead Sir Robert Loxley, a role he is asked to maintain so that Loxley’s elderly father can keep his demesne safe from Prince John’s taxmen. Naturally Loxley’s widow Marion initially resents him and then falls in love with him. And after this things get even sillier, with newly crowned King John turning the barons against him and making it easy for the French to invade. It is revealed that Robin’s father was a revolutionary who penned the original doctrine behind the Magna Carta, and with John momentarily cowed our hero leads the reunited English forces to victory over the French on the beach at Dover. For anyone familiar with English history or interested in the iconic figure of Robin Hood, this film is simply a travesty, twisting whatever we have of fact entirely out of true. It is complete and utter tosh, with performances from Crowe and others that appear to have been mailed in by pigeon post, and a few large scale and energetic battle scenes as the only saving grace. I never thought I’d say this, but the Kevin Costner version is a masterpiece by comparison.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Based on one of Patrick O’Brian’s novels of the Napoleonic wars, this film is set in 1805 when Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey of HMS Surprise is ordered to pursue and destroy the French vessel Acheron. It’s a pursuit that takes both ships halfway round the world in a deadly naval game of cat and mouse, with British seamanship versus French size and firepower. Of course we know how it’s going to end, and that somewhat dilutes the pleasure of the battle, but only a little. Crowe brings Aubrey to life, a kind man who is sometimes compelled to act harshly, an honourable man in a conflict where there is precious little room for chivalry. The rigours of shipboard life and the necessary discipline are all compellingly portrayed, while the sea fights are exciting and visually pleasing. It is a relatively simple idea but one which is executed with real craft and gives the viewer an engaging cast of characters in a tale that is never less than engrossing, albeit without really setting the world on fire.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Based on true events, this film opens in 1947 with the arrival of mathematician John Nash (Crowe) at Princeton and moves forward almost up to the present day. Nash is an oddball, but undeniably a genius, doing work that nobody else is capable of. He wants to achieve the kind of recognition that is granted to only the best in the field. After groundbreaking work at university, he becomes involved in helping various government agencies crack Russian codes, but it’s work that is fraught with danger, and Nash has to flee from gunmen intent on his death. Gradually our perspective changes and we come to realise that he is a schizophrenic and many of the people in his life are purely imaginary. There follows a period in a mental institution, and a few years in the wilderness, before Nash learns to control his demons and goes on to attain every academic distinction that is open to him, including a Nobel Prize. Crowe is superb in the lead role, capturing perfectly both Nash’s genius and the quirks of his illness, so that we never really pity this flawed man, only sympathise with the trials he is going through. The hallucinations provide an action element that, surprisingly perhaps, works very well in what is essentially a story of the mind, while we also get plenty of humour, Nash using this as a mechanism to undercut the dangers of his illness. Jennifer Connelly, who also played Crowe’s wife in Noah, here provides sterling support as Alicia Nash, transforming from femme fatale to put upon wife and mother, supportive but on her own terms and taking no shit, receiving a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. At bottom it is the story of a man overcoming horrendous obstacles to achieve his goals, a heartwarming tale of personal triumph against the odds, one in which we can all identify with and cheer on the all too human hero, whose genius is almost a side issue at times. I wouldn’t however think it was a good thing for most schizophrenia patients to abandon their meds and try self-control instead. It might have worked for Nash, but as the film makes plain he was an exceptional man. I loved this film. And just days after watching news broke that Nash and his wife had been killed in a road traffic accident, which saddened me immeasurably. It felt like I’d lost a friend, somebody I knew well.

L. A. Confidential (1997)

Based on one of my favourite James Ellroy novels, this film is set in 1950s LA, with organised crime and corruption in the police force at the heart of the story. It’s a three hander, with Kevin Spacey as celebrity detective Jack Vincennes and Guy Pearce as the ruthlessly career minded Ed Exley, while Crowe is Bud White, a thug with a detective’s badge, but also a man who has a sense of honour (he won’t tolerate wife beating, for one). These three become unlikely allies when the investigation into a massacre at a late night café and the case of a prostitution ring running call girls who resemble Hollywood stars collide. That’s just the bones of the plot, and of course there is much, much more to it, so that ultimately what we have is an examination of celebrity culture, our own obsessions held up to us and seen in a mirror darkly. The characters are finely drawn with a host of stars taking on cameo roles, as for example Danny DeVito as the proprietor of a scandal sheet and Paul Guilfoyle as mobster Mickey Cohen. While the three leads are superb, special mention should also be made of James Cromwell as the sinister Dudley Smith, a chief of detectives who is a law unto himself, and Kim Basinger as love interest Lynn Bracken. The twists and turns of the plot held me spellbound, while the final climactic shoot out was true edge of the seat stuff. It is an all-round brilliant film.

What’s everybody else’s favourite Russell Crowe film?

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