At my signal, unleash hell.
The above line from Russell Crowe’s most iconic screen role – Maximus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) – seems a fitting enough emblem for the determined, no-nonsense mark Crowe has stamped on the film world since his first performance some 25 years ago.
Appearing at a time when rugged, old-fashioned leading male film stars seemed to be on the decline (think John Wayne and Kirk Douglas), Crowe’s Antipodean directness immediately struck a chord with audiences – as well as the producers, directors and casting agents of Hollywood. Incidentally, although Crowe exhibits many of the traits one associates with a typical Aussie (straight-talker, brusque, outdoorsman), by birthplace and nationality he’s a New Zealander – he’s even cousin to the late, great Kiwi cricketer, Martin Crowe. It was in Australia, though, that Crowe first entered the public consciousness in his late twenties. Brilliantly essaying a chilling malevolence as a neo-Nazi in the raw but compelling Romper Stomper (1993), Crowe echoed footsteps made by other thesps like Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, Edward Norton and Ryan Gosling, who made significant career breakthroughs playing fascists. With his screen presence established, Crowe soon made the journey across the Pacific to star in vehicles for Sharon Stone (The Quick and the Dead, 1995) and Denzel Washington (Virtuosity, 1995).
Crowe’s first leap into major stardom came in Curtis Hanson’s compelling noir homage, L.A. Confidential (1997). In a narrative seemingly centred around Kevin Spacey’s suave detective and Kim Basinger’s femme fatale, one of the film’s most fascinating developments is how fellow ‘unknown’ Aussies, Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe – both in seemingly support roles – team up to become the film’s joint heroes and solve the central, ominous conspiracy. Hanson was wise to tap into Pearce and Crowe’s polar qualities. Pearce plays a by-the-book, deskbound detective versus Crowe’s burly, more hands-on cop – and the success of their double-act, and the film as a whole, catapulted Crowe (as well as Pearce) into a position in the Hollywood firmament from which he’s never really looked back.
After L.A. Confidential, Crowe entered his golden period. He was still just under 40 so could continue to carry off the conventional duties of the leading man (action, romance), but he had enough maturity, authenticity and versatility to branch out in other interesting directions too. This played out in a mesmeric double-act for Crowe in early 2000 when, over a matter of weeks, he appeared in a pair of films which even now pass for perhaps the best two performances he’s ever given on screen.
The first needs no introduction: Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which earned Crowe the Best Actor award at the 2001 Oscars. It’s easy to gloss over Crowe’s achievements in Gladiator now, as it is a film and a performance that has become so embedded in our cultural consciousness. At the time though, it represented huge risk: the swords-and-sandals epic seemed a genre at least 40 years past its sell-by date; Ridley Scott was being increasingly viewed through the prism of a “hack” whose best work (Alien and Blade Runner) had been a good 20 years before; and Russell Crowe was still something of an unknown – especially as a lead in big-budget Hollywood action cinema. Looking back, had the film gone with a safe pair of hands like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt, would it still have been as successful? Judging by the evidence of similar genre pieces made around the same time, The Last Samurai (Cruise) and Troy (Pitt), I think not. There was something about Crowe’s recognisable, “everyman” persona and rawness of emotion that moved audiences and gave Gladiator its overwhelming sense of power and resonance.
If you were lucky enough, at your local multiplex you could sneak out of one Crowe picture (Gladiator) and step straight into another (Michael Mann’s magnificent The Insider, 1999). In The Insider, Crowe couldn’t look more different from the bronzed, hulking Maximus of Gladiator. He was the very embodiment of a prematurely aged, world-weary, out-of-shape corporate stooge who finally decides to blow the whistle on the immoral practices of a tobacco firm he once worked for. What is so great about Crowe’s performance in The Insider is that although he’s inhabiting a persona that is very ‘other’ from his own, he doesn’t odiously demonstrate the transformation like other conceited character actors might. And in fact, that’s one of Crowe’s great gifts as a film actor: he’s not a theatrical performer – his talents were made for the scrutiny of the camera. He possesses oodles of presence, and he’s simply an innately interesting actor to watch thinking and ‘doing’ on screen. He doesn’t need to act; he embodies.
Since Crowe’s turn-of-the-millennium triumphs, he has settled into a snug, well-deserved position as a Hollywood A-lister. Now well into his middle age, he’s been more than happy to grow into those more paternalistic and/or support roles, rather than try desperately to hang onto his youthful leading-man status à la Cruise. Zack Snyder and Darren Aronofsky have cast him as colossal, biblical father figures in Man of Steel (2013) and Noah (2014) respectively, while Ridley Scott has continually sought to utilise Crowe post-Gladiator (though apart from Robin Hood , which almost functioned as an ironic, “ten years older” variant on the Gladiator aesthetic, nothing has matched that first, propulsive collaboration).
Crowe has also been willing to stretch himself – admittedly, not always successfully – but he’s given comedy a go in the patchy A Good Year (2006) and the just-released The Nice Guys (2016). He even appeared in the unlikeliest of places – a musical – as Inspector Javert in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables (2012) and, of course, he had his first stab as director with The Water Diviner (2014). Owing to Crowe’s authenticity and utter lack of vanity, there may be a few chapters yet in his cinematic story – a career which could perhaps be most aptly entitled in that most ‘Maximus’ of mantras: “Strength and Honour”.
Top Five Russell Crowe films:
1. The Insider (1999)
Crowe’s prime triumph as a screen actor in one of the great American films of the new millennium. It’s an exposition of brilliant character acting without the usual “look at me” vanity of Hollywood method actors demonstrating their physical transformation.
2. L.A. Confidential (1997)
Crowe’s intensity and testosterone levels almost sear off the screen in this – indisputably the best of his early Hollywood performances.
3. Romper Stomper (1993)
The film in which Crowe made his name, and it’s not difficult to see why: his intensity, charisma and brutish masculinity completely dominates this story of a group of Melbourne neo-Nazis.
4. Noah (2014)
It’s hard to imagine any other modern-day screen actor having the sheer gravitas and presence to take on the role of Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s truly epic, bonkers production. And Crowe pulled it off too!
5. Gladiator (2000)
Crowe’s seminal and most famous film role – and the reputation is thoroughly deserved. Crowe offers power, emotion, guts and empathy by the bucketload.