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Gladiator   B+

DreamWorks Pictures / Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson
Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou.

Review by Rob Vaux

You have to hand it to Gladiator: few films make disemboweling look this sexy. Veteran director Ridley Scott takes no prisoners in his epic vision of Imperial Rome, throwing us face first on the Coliseum floor and pounding us until we beg for mercy. So skillfully delivered is this sturm und drang -- and so perfect a lead is actor Russell Crowe -- that the film's shortcomings are all but buried beneath the sheer awesome spectacle.

Crowe plays General Maximus, chief legionnaire for the aging Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). A fierce fighter and canny tactician, Maximus wants nothing more than to mop up a few Huns and go back to Spain where his family awaits. But politics intervene and he soon finds himself in the middle of a power play between the emperor and his weasel son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Marcus wants Maximus to rule as a regent until the Senate can take control, making Rome a true republic. Commodus, on the other hand, sees the Empire as his own personal chew toy and doesn't need Maximus getting in the way. One foiled execution and desperate flight later, the general finds himself chained to a slave caravan, destined for the gladiator pits of North Africa. While he chafes under the yoke of his new master (the late Oliver Reed), his new enemy whacks the old man, heads back to Rome, and starts making creepy overtures to his she-devil of a sister (Connie Nielsen). Can Maximus somehow stop the little twerp before the Caligula remake begins in earnest?

Though a half-hour too long and soggy in the middle, the power of Gladiator as pure spectacle cannot be under-emphasized. From the gothic forests of Germania to the center of the Coliseum, Scott delivers a fully realized vision of Rome at its height. We can feel the rose petals falling on the parades, and hear gladiators clash with jaw-rattling intensity. The battle scenes use the same film technique as Saving Private Ryan's harrowing introduction, resulting in some of the most intense action sequences in years. It's enough to drown the audience through sheer scale.

Yet bone-crunching visuals are par for the course this time of year. What raises Gladiator above the usual dreck is the strength of its story and power of its performances. It's certainly not Shakespeare, but the characters here are actually fleshed out and their actions all more or less make sense. There's a genuine sense of dramatic tension as the plot moves forward and the build-up has the right amount of punch to carry it over the slow parts. In Scott's lesser movies, he uses the visuals as a crutch, covering up the shortcomings. Here they actually support something interesting, which makes all the difference in the world.

And then there's the lead. With an Oscar nomination already under his belt, Crowe announces his presence here as a major star. He moves through this film like a caged panther, dripping fierce masculinity and infecting every scene with relentless power. He gets strong support from both Harris and Reed, who give their strongest performances in years, and from Phoenix, whose sniveling Commodus maintains a spark of humanity while never being less than loathsome.

The film is complete historical hokum of course. While both Aurelius and Commodus are historical figures, Maximus isn't, and the drama surrounding them is pure fabrication. If you're one of those people who judge historical dramas on their accuracy, stay far, far away from this flick. Thankfully, Gladiator never tries to be a history lesson and never falls into the fatal self-importance of other recent epics. Beyond a few quiet digs at our current culture -- which has some eerie similarities to ancient Rome -- all Scott and company want to do is tell a good story. As a new summer kicks off and Hollywood bombast once again fills the air, you can't ask for anything more. "Are you not entertained?!" Crowe howls derisively to a Coliseum crowd. For all his intended irony, it's hard not to shout back "Yes!"

Review published 05.12.2000.

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