3 1/2 StarsDirector Ridley Scott triumphantly returns to the Big Screen after a series of stinkers like G.I. Jane, White Squall, and 1492: Conquest of Paradise. What do those three films have in common? They are all magnificently photographed films that ultimately failed because of trite characters and weak stories. Gladiator sidesteps these pitfalls deftly by borrowing stock characters from Shakespeare’s histories and smoke-and-mirroring the weak story with a half-dozen bloody, brutal, beautiful battle sequences.
Maximus (Russell Crowe) is a brilliant general leading the armies of Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) against the barbarian hordes of Germania. Victorious, Maximus is summoned before Caesar, who confides that he is dying and wants Maximus to succeed him and return Rome to its glory as a republic.
When Caesar’s son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is informed of this, he murders his father and orders the execution of Maximus and his family. Maximus escapes, but is captured by a slave trader and sold to Proximo (Oliver Reed), a promoter of gladiators, (sort of the Vince McMahon of Northern Africa). Soon enough, Maximus, known as “The Spaniard” by fans, becomes the hero of the spectacle and the de facto leader of a handful of talented gladiators.
In the meantime, Commodus, with the intention of disintegrating the Senate, has re-instated the Gladiatores Violentia in the Coliseum to curry the favor of a bloodthirsty populi. With his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) at his side as queen, Commodus instigates machinations for his devious purposes, while Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) mounts a counter-operation to thwart him.
Naturally, Proximo’s gladiators are invited to battle in the Coliseum where Maximus triumphs, revealing himself to Commodus and the people, who love him, and all hell breaks loose.
Gladiator has all the fixin’s for wonderful drama: secret treaties, intrigues, deceptions, heroic battles, climactic duels, virtuous warriors, vengeance, incest, patricide, asps… Unfortunately, Scott’s visual style occasionally gets in the way of the movie. Incredible though it is, it becomes intrusive and makes the film seem overly long.
However, the performances are enough to maintain your interest, particularly Oliver Reed in his final role and Joaquin Phoenix, whose career will hopefully explode in the wake of this truly phenomenal performance.