Box Office Gladiator: Charting the Commercial Highs & Lows of Unhinged Star Russell Crowe

Russell Crowe’s next film, the high-octane car chase thriller Unhinged, marks the first major release of the actor’s fourth decade in movies. Upon its Aug. 21 release, it will also be the first major film to debut in North American theaters during the pandemic—not to mention the inaugural title from upstart distributor Solstice Studios, which seems determined to make Unhinged the canary in the coal mine of theatrical exhibition during COVID-19.

Crowe may not be the box office draw he once was, but Unhinged nonetheless revolves around the actor’s still-considerable star power, which has paid dividends over his lucrative Hollywood career. Below, we take a look back at the commercial highs and lows of his weighty filmography.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

In Unhinged, Crowe stars as Tom Cooper, a mentally unstable man who stalks a young mother and her teenage son across America’s roadways. It’s a role that highlights the brand of macho bravado audiences first became familiar with via Crowe’s breakthrough role in L.A. Confidential, in which the actor played no-nonsense Los Angeles police officer Wendell “Bud” White.

Directed by Curtis Hanson, L.A. Confidential opened on Sept. 19, 1997 to rave reviews, many of them singling out Crowe’s ferocious performance. Though it never grossed more than $6 million on any weekend domestically, the film was a steady performer that finished its North American run with $64.62 million and another $61.6 million overseas, bringing its global total to $126.22 million off a $35 million budget. It also scored nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and won two. In the aftermath, Crowe—whose previous American film credits included box-office flops The Quick and the Dead and Virtuosity—became part of Hollywood’s new class of leading men.

The Insider (1999)

Following a role in the little-seen ice hockey film Mystery, Alaska, Crowe received his best reviews to date in Michael Mann’s 1999 drama The Insider, in which the actor played Big Tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. Though the film was a box office flop—grossing just $29.09 million domestic and $60.29 million worldwide off a bloated $90 million budget—Crowe’s transformative performance netted him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, adding further fuel to his burgeoning super-stardom.

Gladiator (2000)

That super-stardom reached full flower with the release of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in which Crowe played Roman military officer-turned-slave Maximus Decimus Meridius in full action-hero mode. Opening to a robust $34.83 million in its opening weekend in early May 2000, Gladiator became a bona fide pop culture phenomenon and a leggy box office performer, finishing its run with $187.7 million in North America and $460.58 million worldwide off a budget of $103 million. Its triumph was sealed at the following year’s Oscars, where the film won five out of a whopping 12 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Crowe.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

The massive success of Gladiator had a transformative effect on Crowe’s career, cementing him as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand leading men. Though the Dec. 2000 action film Proof of Life failed to catch fire with audiences or critics (and was largely overshadowed by his rumored on-set affair with co-star Meg Ryan), his next film—the Ron Howard-directed drama A Beautiful Mind—was another blockbuster.

Debuting in limited release in late Dec. 2001, A Beautiful Mind grossed $16.57 million in its wide debut in early January and ultimately grossed $170.74 million domestic and $313.54 million worldwide off a $58 million budget. Widely praised for his performance as mathematician John Nash, whose struggles with paranoid schizophrenia were a focus of the film, Crowe again received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Though he ultimately lost, A Beautiful Mind would take home four Academy Awards, including Best Picture—the second year in a row in which Crowe starred in the winning film.

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

Following the release of A Beautiful Mind, Crowe would not appear in another movie for nearly two years. He re-emerged with the laboriously-titled Napoleonic Wars drama Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, in which the actor starred as a Royal Navy captain who doggedly pursues a French war ship off the coast of South America.

Though it opened to a decent $25.11 million in North America, the Peter Weir-directed film was expensive (its budget was reported to be $150 million), and it ultimately failed to catch on with audiences in the way either Gladiator or A Beautiful Mind had. It finished its run with $93.93 million domestic and $211.62 million worldwide—impressive numbers for nearly any other film, but disappointing for one with such a hefty price tag. Nonetheless, Master and Commander snagged ten Academy Award nominations the following year, including Best Picture, and won two including Best Cinematography. A nod for Crowe—such a favorite with awards voters in previous years—did not materialize in the Best Actor category, however.

Cinderella Man (2005)

A series of commercial disappointments would follow over the next several years. One salient example was the true-life boxing drama Cinderella Man, another pairing between Crowe and his A Beautiful Mind director Howard. Heralded as another potential awards contender, Cinderella Man was nonetheless released on June 3, 2005, the height of the summer blockbuster season (it was previously slated for a fall 2004 release but was pushed back after Crowe suffered an on-set injury). With an opening weekend gross of $18.23 million, Cinderella Man debuted below expectations and failed to hold up in subsequent frames despite a largely positive reaction from critics. It didn’t help that Cinderella Man arrived with a heavyweight $88 million budget—likely bloated by Crowe and co-star Renee Zellweger’s A-list salaries—making its ultimate gross of $61.65 million domestic and $108.54 million global a disappointment in relative terms.

Interestingly, Crowe’s first reunion with Ridley Scott—who, like Howard, had directed one of Crowe’s biggest box office successes—also failed to ignite. That film was the very un-Gladiator-like romantic comedy A Good Year, which stuttered out of the gate in Nov. 2006, grossing just $7.5 million domestic and $42.27 million global off a $35 million budget. The following September, the Western remake 3:10 to Yuma debuted somewhat promisingly with $14.04 million in its opening weekend but failed to keep up the momentum, ultimately landing at $53.61 million in North America and $70.02 million worldwide—a disappointment given its reported $55 million budget.

Crowe’s only real hit in the mid-to-late ‘00s was his next film with Scott, American Gangster. Starring Denzel Washington as real-life drug trafficker Frank Lucas and Crowe as the detective investigating him, the film opened on Nov. 2, 2007 with a muscular $43.57 million in North America and finished its domestic run with $130.16 million. Worldwide, American Gangster brought in $269.75 million, enough to justify its $100 million budget—though Washington, not Crowe, was the film’s real star.

Robin Hood (2010)

Despite the rare bright spot of American Gangster, Crowe’s commercial track record continued on shaky ground for the next several years. His fourth film with Scott—the 2008 action-thriller Body of Lies co-starring Leonardo DiCaprio—grossed $115.9 million worldwide off a $70 million budget, while the 2009 political thriller State of Play fared even worse, bringing in $87.81 million off a budget of $60 million.

Crowe’s professional relationship with Scott continued with his next film, the mega-budget 2010 Robin Hood. Though it managed to gross $105.27 million domestic and $321.67 million worldwide, the retelling arrived with a hefty price tag in the realm of $200 million, dampening what might otherwise have been viewed as a solid hit for the actor-director duo. Like many releases starring Crowe, the problem with the film lay in its exorbitant production costs: Between L.A. Confidential and Robin Hood, the average budget of a Russell Crowe production came in at over $81 million—a number few stars have the drawing power to justify.

Noah (2014)

In terms of commercial performance, things would improve considerably for Crowe over the following decade. His next film after Robin Hood, 2010’s The Next Three Days, was all but ignored by domestic audiences and made just $67.45 million at the worldwide box office, but its budget was a relatively low $30 million. Two years later, he would score his first real success since American Gangster with director Tom Hooper’s star-studded musical adaptation of Les Misérables, in which Crowe appeared opposite heavy-hitters Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman. Made on a budget of $61 million, the acclaimed film opened to a solid $27.28 million in North America over the Christmas holiday and ultimately grossed a muscular $148.81 million domestic and $441.81 million worldwide. Les Misérables went on to score eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and won three, including Best Supporting Actress for Hathaway.

As successful as Les Misérables was, the film wasn’t a traditional starring vehicle for Crowe, instead functioning as more of an ensemble piece. From a marketing perspective, his presence was much more essential to his next film, 2013’s Broken City, in which he starred opposite Mark Wahlberg. That film sputtered to just $34.74 million worldwide off a $35 million budget, while his next two movies—the blockbuster Superman reboot Man of Steel and romantic fantasy Winter’s Tale—featured him in supporting roles.

It was with Noah, a retelling of the biblical tale directed by Darren Aronofsky, that Crowe would enjoy his biggest success in over a decade. Released on March 28, 2014, the $125 million production (or $160 million, depending on the source) grossed a hefty $43.72 million in its opening weekend, the highest of Crowe’s career to date (not counting Man of Steel). It would go on to gross $101.2 million in North America and over two times that amount overseas, ultimately landing with $359.2 million worldwide. While not quite a Gladiator-level blockbuster, the film nonetheless gave Crowe his greatest commercial success since 2001’s A Beautiful Mind.

The Nice Guys (2016) and beyond

After making a pit stop with his little-seen directorial debut The Water Diviner (in which he also starred), Crowe returned to studio fare with the Warner Bros. action-comedy The Nice Guys, in which he starred opposite Ryan Gosling as one-half of a pair of private eyes investigating a porn star’s apparent suicide. While critically acclaimed, the Shane Black-directed film stumbled commercially, grossing $36.26 million in North America and $62.79 million worldwide off a $50 million budget.

Since The Nice Guys, it’s been over four years since Crowe starred in a proper leading role. In Universal’s big-budget reimagining of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise in 2017 he was only a supporting player, while the 2018 independent drama Boy Erased never performed well enough to earn a wide release. His most recent film, the low-budget Australian western True History of the Kelly Gang, hit the U.S. during the pandemic, leading to minimal theatrical revenue on a handful of drive-in screens.

Unhinged, of course, is a special case—not only for Crowe, but for the U.S. theatrical marketplace. If the film succeeds, one could interpret it as a testament to the enduring star magic that rocketed Crowe to the top of the Hollywood A-list early in his career—though it could also be interpreted as a testament to the enduring power of the theatrical experience, as well as audiences’ desperation to return to some semblance of normalcy. On the other hand, if it fails, Crowe can hardly be blamed for the shortfall given the unprecedented nature of theatrical exhibition post-COVID-19.

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