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'Gladiator' rules: Ridley Scott delivers the kind of grand old epic they don't make anymore

Friday, May 05, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Gladiator" is the kind of movie Cecil B. DeMille might have directed, had Hollywood's devout vulgarian taken himself more seriously.


Rating: R for intense, graphic combat

Players: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen

Director: Ridley Scott

Web site: www.gladiator-

Critic's call: 3 1/2 stars


DeMille -- best known as the auteur of "The Ten Commandments," "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "Samson and Delilah" -- perfected the mix of spectacle and hokum, the sacred and the profane, tawdry sensation in moralistic clothing. He was a showman above all, creating movies and a personal image on a grand scale.

"Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott, also cuts a swath of epic proportions -- not just in the fierce battle scenes but also in the high-flown dialogue, the rich characterizations and even the casting -- from Oscar nominee Russell Crowe in the title role to such strong old hands as Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi and the late Oliver Reed.

There is nothing really new here in terms of story, and any profundities are left to lurk in the subtext. But Scott, his cast and crew invest "Gladiator" with so much heft and size, such strong action and visual splendor that the audience eagerly stands for all this ceremony.

For all the millions that Hollywood spends, for all of its special effects and technical wizardry, the simple fact is that they just don't make 'em like this anymore. "Gladiator" recalls a classical type of filmmaking, with a richness of style that comes not merely from attitude but from craftsmanship so solid you feel you can reach out and grab it.

The story begins with striking similarities to that of "Titus," the Shakespeare adaptation that just played here. A Roman general concludes a successful military campaign, only to run afoul of a new ruler who tries to destroy him and his family, leaving the once loyal soldier to seek his bloody revenge.

The twist in "Gladiator" is that General Maximus (Crowe), having been brought low by the callow, cruel Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), is abducted by slave traders. He is sold to Proximo (Reed), who trains gladiators in the brutal sport of fighting to the death. Proximo brings his combatants to Rome, where Maximus will plot his vengeance as they perform in the Colosseum for Commodus and his bloodthirsty citizens in what amounts to the Super Bowl of carnage.

"Are you entertained?" screams Maximus to the crowd at one point. "Is this what you came for?"

Director Scott and the screenwriters -- David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson -- don't belabor the point, but one can easily imagine the question being directed at contemporary audiences, who invoke metaphors of war in discussions of football and have made a wildly popular spectator sport of professional wrestling, that violent, intricately choreographed morality play. And then there's Jerry Springer.

None of these, of course, require the combatants to die (Jenny Jones panelists notwithstanding). But more than a few moviegoers will flock to "Gladiator" precisely for the bloodletting, savage and straightforward, as men stab and slash each other with axes and huge swords, chopping off heads and limbs and lives.

Scott stages the huge battle scene that opens the movie as a ferocious elegy not just to the soldiers but to the ideals of old Marcus Aurelius (Harris), who only now realizes his decades of warmongering negate all the ideals of old Rome he holds dear. The chickens come home to roost in Commodus, his half-hearted son, who craves the love his father cannot give him and whose zeal for winning the hearts and minds of his people only makes his situation worse.

Phoenix gives a sure performance as this uncertain tyrant, whining and plotting like a petulant child but also providing the character with the depth of emotion that makes him, if not sympathetic, at least understandable.

Crowe, in contrast, couldn't be more stalwart as Maximus. He is a decent man in an indecent profession, committed to a singleness of purpose -- defeating the enemy, returning to the comforts of home or destroying the man who made that impossible.

Reed, in his last role, makes us feel the fullness of Proximo's life, with its surprising turns. Djimon Hounsou ("Amistad") combines toughness and lightness as Juba, another of the gladiators. But Connie Nielsen runs the largest gamut of emotions as Lucilla, the young emperor's sister, who is skilled at maintaining her precarious position alongside the mercurial Commodus.

Director Scott gives them all a big tapestry, one that borders on the mythological. Their combined talents fill it admirably.

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