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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Gladiator

Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix
Director: Ridley Scott
Rated: R
RunTime: 154 Minutes
Release Date: May 2000
Genres: Action, Drama

*Also starring: Djimon Hounsou, Derek Jacobi, Ralph Moeller, Connie Nielsen, Spencer Treat Clark, Richard Harris, Tomas Arana, Oliver Reed

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

If this review were limited to two words, these words would reflect the grandiloquent gesture of the 50,000 spectators in the Roman Colosseum: "Pollice sursum." Thumbs up. The expected huge audience for this $100 million movie is likely to be as excited by its realization as the 50,000 fans at Rome's Colosseum had been when watching the victorious combat of the title hero, Maximus, also known simply as "Gladiator." While grand spectaculars are commonplace for the big Hollywood studios, biblical marvels like "The 10 Commandments" and historical epics centering on ancient Rome have been largely missing from the big screen for the past thirty-five years--victims of cost and perhaps the feeling by studio execs that mainstream moviegoers have lost interest in historical drama.

But thanks to the marvels of modern technology imposed on a fictionalized, historical past, Judah Ben-Hur's chariot in motion looks like a scooter ride at Coney Island when contrasted with the thunder and hoofbeats of the legionnaires in Ridley Scott's robust and bloody tale of revenge. If the lavish spectacles of the fifties and early sixties brought audiences to the theaters for what they could not see on their small TV screens, "Gladiator" will likely pile up box office numbers as well, especially given its sincere, vigorous, wholly credible and consistent action with nary a campy moment for unintentional laughter.

While "Gladiator" is not officially a sequel to any previous effort, the movie takes off where Anthony Mann's 1964 effort "The Fall of the Roman Empire" leaves off. Like Ridley Scott's labor, Mann's picture, starring Sophia Loren and Stephen Boyd, possesses a solid screenplay, masterful direction and terrific ensemble acting and is likewise set in the year 180 A.D. and opening in the Germania forests. This time, Roman legions are fighting the last stronghold of the barbarians, a fully bearded, strange lot of people who are ultimately trashed by an army under the command of Maximus (Russell Crowe). The film opens with photographer John Mathieson's close-up of the face of the great general, a man whose pensive, exhausted look serves effectively enough in place of the lengthy speechifying we'd have expected from seeing earlier historical screenplays such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Cleopatra" and George Stevens's "The Greatest Story Ever Told"--both products of the sixties when the genre was at its height.

When a Roman messenger carrying a request for surrender to the German forces returns on horseback to his own side minus a head, the general's right-hand man quips, "They say no." Maximus gives his final pep talk to the troops before the great battle--a combat scene that could almost be compared for bloodletting with Steven Spielberg's opening of "Saving Private Ryan." "If you find yourself in a green field with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. You're in Elysium and you're already dead," Maximus intones almost poker-faced to the amusement of the spear-and-sword carrying men. Burning the forest that serves as protection for the men of Germania in much the way the U.S. utilized napalm to destroy the shielding groves of Vietnam, Maximus emerges triumphant, impressing the then-reigning emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) enough to be named successor to the dying man. When Aurelius--who is troubled that only four of his twenty years was time spent in peace--fails to convey his wishes to the Senate, Aurelius's son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) declares himself emperor. The envious neurotic orders the execution of the popular general.

Escaping the executioner, Maximus is captured, sold as a slave by Proximo (Oliver Reed), and turned into a gladiator, where his success in the African ring leads Proximo to take him to the Roman Colosseum for the big time. The remainder of the story alternates political scheming with Maximus's combat in the ring against a varied assortment of foes from other slaves to legionnaires with tigers in tow. Commodus and his allies deal in their own ways with the big man's opponents--particularly renegade Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) who favors a return to a republic, and the emperor's own two-timing sister, the beautiful Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), with whom the emperor is in lust. As we hear the bantering of these statesmen, we cannot help thinking of politics in our own times. Leaders plot to displace one another legally or otherwise and legislatures demand a greater say in the decisions of our era as the U.S. Congress recently did during the impeachment and trial of President Clinton.

Filmed principally in Malta, and also in the southern city of Ouarzazarte, Morocco (standing in for the Roman province of Zucchabar), "Gladiator" boasts some intriguing travelogue photography, the most impressive being the mud houses and 500-year-old casbah of the touristic Moroccan city. Ridley Scott does not dare to make any of his many battles redundant, pitting Maximus first against the amateurs in North Africa, later against legionnaires on chariots with spokes on their wheels designed to cut opponents in half, then throwing in a tiger or two (actual, tame cats were used in this production), and finally a reasonably tense one-on-one between Maximus and the emperor himself--after Commodus conveniently delivers a gruesome stab wound to his opponent's back while the latter stands chained inside the Colosseum walls.

Joaquin Phoenix makes for a formidable villain, the epitome of pure evil that Claudius and Nero themselves would envy. This emperor kills his own father, virtually has incestuous relations with his sister, and fights with his nemesis only after delivering a malevolently unsporting blow to his opponent. He moreover shows his disdain for the general by describing the way his men executed Maximus's family, the brood to which Maximus wishes to return and do farming after the final battle with Germania. "They say your son squealed like a hawk when they nailed him to a cross and that your wife moaned like a whore as she was ravished again and again and again," he intones to the beleaguered hero. For her part, Connie Nielsen looks bewitching as the unhappy sister of the emperor, siding with Senator Gracchus and with General Maximus in their desire to rid the vast empire--housing one- quarter of the human population and stretching from North Africa to Britain--of its malicious ruler.

Perhaps to no one's great surprise, Russell Crowe is already being touted for the Best Actor Oscar of the year 2000, an award on which he barely missed out courtesy of a crackerjack performance by Kevin Spacey in yet another DreamWorks production, "American Beauty." Had this actor in the role of research scientist in Michael Mann's "The Insider" been afforded the weaponry he uses in this movie, none of the seven lying CEO's of the tobacco giants would be alive today. Crowe shows an uncanny ability to exchange the bearings of a paunchy, middle-aged high-school teacher in "The Insider" for the lean, mean, bearded general this time around. He's the guy that will bring in the women for a picture that's hardly a chick flick, while the youthful crowd will be captivated by chariots crashing and dismantling against the walls of the Colosseum, heads rolling, torsos bloodied, and tigers maimed. "Gladiator" is fast and furious, its physical action tempered with the verbal sounds of Machiavellian political maneuvers. This is not a movie that can wait for video nor should it be ruined months from now by inserting a tape or DVD into your home entertainment system. Savor "Gladiator" for the big screen in all of John Mathieson's wonderful wide-screen action replete with an array of smashing costumes, defensive armor, and determined weaponry.

(C) 2000 by Harvey Karten,

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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