"Gladiator" is what championship is all about. Thrilling and exciting, it embraces technical standards of filmmaking rarely anticipated in earlier epics.
Like a true champion, director Ridley Scott boasts a muscular visual sense that engulfs the viewer with sinewy immediacy. His re-creations of the Roman Empire's Coliseum, the city's major arteries and clandestine alleys have a you-are-there urgency that happily erases any taint of stilted pageantry.
What "Gladiator" lacks is a similar emotional pull. Its hero Maximus endures as many trials as the Old Testament's Job and is well-played by the gifted and frequently empathetic Russell Crowe. Yet the movie never grabs you in an emotional tug-of-war. Maximus remains simply a stoic figure to whom fascinating things just keep happening.
It's not a fatal flaw. During the film's seemingly lean 154-minute running time, the action flows at such a splendid rate that only after the final spear is thrust do you notice an emotional detachment. By then, it's easy to remind yourself that roller-coaster rides never claim to have "heart."
Although the movie's plot uses storylines and characterizations previously encountered in "The Fall of the Roman Empire" and "Spartacus," the heroic Maximus follows an arc similar to that of Ben-Hur's venerable Judah. Maximus' trajectory is from respected citizen to vilified slave to hero to virtual saint.
At the heart of Maximus' travails is good ol' family dysfunction, resplendent with the rivalry of semi-siblings. The film's spectacular opening segment finds Mr. Crowe's Maximus leading the Roman troops against the barbarians of Germania in 180 A.D. The scene staggeringly captures the fury, chaos and overriding insanity of combat. It also solidifies Maximus as the noblest warrior possible. His men clearly revere him; he speaks wistfully of his wife and son waiting for his return; and he even allows himself a faint smile at the flight of a sparrow.
His Germania victory brings fresh gratitude from his beloved Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), who has considered Maximus a son while dismissing his own offspring, the wretched Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), as the waste of flesh that he is. When the frail Marcus Aurelius announces his intention of making Maximus his successor, Commodus crawls into action. He murders his own father and calls for Maximus' execution.
Maximus escapes the headsman's ax and becomes a gladiator hero, focusing only on one goal: to spill Commodus' blood. Adding to the intrigue is Commodus' imperious yet humane sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). She and Maximus once enjoyed a rendezvous, from which neither can claim emotional closure. Their liaison remains a thorn in Commodus' frail side, since he openly lusts after his sister. Oh, those royals!
Commodus is such a neurotic mini-Nero that his odious presence allows the viewer to cheer the gladiatorial bloodshed with guiltless abandon. You sense that all roads lead to Commodus' downfall, even at a sobering price.
Maximus is probably the least complex role yet played by Mr. Crowe, veteran of "The Insider," "L.A. Confidential," "Romper Stomper," "Proof" and "The Sum of Us." He plays it with straightforward zeal, and his somewhat primitive features complement the armor.
Mr. Phoenix's internalized angst is a courageous switch from the crazed-emperor histrionics of earlier epics. He remains, withal, an unlovable child who wonders why nobody ever loves him. Ms. Nielsen moves like an empress and weeps like a real human being; she registers Lucilla's regality and humanity with equal force.
Among the huge supporting cast, Mr. Harris excels as the dying ruler, who wishes he had done better as both father and emperor. The late Oliver Reed has some nimble moments as the showbiz-savvy gladiator trainer, while Djimon Hounsou ("Amistad") brings soulful eyes and manner to the role of a gladiator who has achieved spiritual equanimity. David Hemmings, looking nothing like he did in 1966's Blowup, plays the Coliseum's bewigged master of ceremonies with an ambisexual naughtiness that suggests the emcee in "Cabaret."
But the greatest victory in "Gladiator" is director Scott's. In "Alien," he created a new and terrifying world. In "Thelma and Louise," he placed a fresh perspective on familiar horizons. In "Gladiator," he triumphs at both.