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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 UK Critic
3½ stars out of 4

Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" is an interesting and attractive action movie, but not a very forceful one. It needs to spend more time with the gladiator himself. This is a "hero out for revenge" picture that keeps cutting away to its cardboard villain, just as we're starting to cheer on the protagonist. It's like channel-hopping between "Spartacus" and "Caligula".

Russell Crowe stars as Maximus, a Roman army general under emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Marcus is so impressed by Maximus's leadership that he appoints him as his successor. His son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is not best pleased by this news, as he himself had expected to be next in line for the throne. Commodus kills his father, seizes power, and orders the death penalty for Maximus and his family.

Of course, Maximus escapes this fate, but his wife and child do not. Then Maximus is kidnapped and sold into slavery. His master, Proximo (Oliver Reed), forces him to become a gladiator, and when his military training leads to great slaughtering talent, Proximo takes him to Rome, to perform at the Coliseum. There the crowd falls in love with him, which forces Commodus into an awkward position; yes, he's found Maximus, but he can't deal with him, because if he kills him then he'll lose the support of his people.

The movie is basically taken up by Maximus and Commodus doing a lot of plotting against each other, punctuated by lofty speeches and gruesome fights. That is as it should be. The problem is that we don't spend enough time with Maximus -- the film is divided pretty much equally between him and the enemy, when it needs to be much more single-minded. Look at "Ben-Hur" or "Braveheart" -- these films are driven completely by their heroes' determination, and that's why we get emotionally involved. Crowe gives a great performance as Maximus -- he has a penetrating stare, commanding voice, muscular body and towering demeanour. He's a powerful, passionate Hollywood lead, and we want to invest our care in him. We just don't get the chance.

Because "Gladiator" never gets us wrapped up in Maximus's struggle, the action sequences are not as tense or affecting as they should be. We can't simply enjoy the excitement of the violence, either, because it's not stimulating, it's sick. Roman bloodlust is one of the most shameful things in history, and Scott, the director, presents it realistically, throwing us into the middle of gladiator fights by way of giddy close-ups and shutter speeds, while the chants of the despicable onlookers thunder at our ears in stereo surround sound.

What we have here, ultimately, is one amazing piece of acting and several flourishes of wonderful technique, spoiled by unwanted distractions. The overall bold, colourful nature of the filmmaking might have been enough to recommend the picture if its better parts hadn't led us to expect something superior. Strange: "Gladiator" would have been a more enjoyable movie if it had been made with less skill.

Copyright 2000 UK Critic

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