XXXX "Gladiator," with Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Oliver Reed. Directed by Ridley Scott, from a script by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson. 150 minutes. Several theaters. "R" - restricted for graphic gladiatorial violence.
There's a thrilling sense of transcendence that won't let go from the first masterfully constructed frames in Ridley Scott's modern epic of ancient Rome. It's that very rare feeling that you're settling into a movie whose individual elements are so finely attuned they fuse into a singular construct of pure entertainment.
Bristling with intense action sequences, loaded with star power, and buttressed by a formidable cast that brings appropriate gravity to an absorbing script, this tale of power and revenge proves that there are still some people in the movie business who know what they're doing.
Leading the long line of creative talent is Russell Crowe as Maximus, a ferocious yet humble general in Marcus Aurelius' Roman Army circa A.D. 180. After a years-long campaign in the farthest reaches of the empire, he's finally on the verge of victory. The battle sequence that opens the film sets a rousing standard for all that follows in its lyrical brutality and razor-sharp pacing.
The dying Aurelius (Richard Harris) implores Maximus to be his successor as Caesar. He believes Maximus can restore Rome to a republic, saving it from the corrupt tyranny that would surely be maintained if his ignoble son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) were to rule as emperor. But Maximus just wants to go home to his wife, son and olive farm, and his uncertainty allows Commodus to exploit the treachery Aurelius feared.
Betrayed and banished, Maximus' world crashes around him. He loses all that he cared for and finds himself captive as a slave. Proximo (Oliver Reed), a wily human trader, acquires Maximus in a North African market and steers him on a new career as gladiator. An instant sensation for his proficiency in the ring, Maximus makes his way to Rome where thousands cheer him on in the elaborate carnage of the Colosseum. There, Maximus ultimately exacts the revenge that has driven his hero's journey.
"Gladiator's" literary narrative is perfectly balanced by the strength of its visual style. Whether in squalid pits under the Colosseum or the blazing sun of its magnificently re-created battleground, the burnished light gives every composition a dazzling, painterly quality. Computer-enhanced shots of the Roman landscape are full of detail, from the statuary and columns of the Forum, to the retractable velarium over the freshly minted Colosseum. Ditto the interior sets, where bedchambers and imperial throne rooms sparkle with authenticity.
It is the ensemble cast that brings life to the special effects and the art direction. Joaquin Phoenix has been waiting for a role that echoes his off-center disposition. As the corrupt young Caesar, he strikes a clever balance of noblesse and puerile arrogance.
You may notice a disruptive flash in the few abrupt cuts and high-tech wizardry used to posthumously complete Oliver Reed's final scene (he died during production). But the late actor's memory couldn't be better served by his turn as the cruelly honorable Proximo.
The biggest winner in the "Gladiator" experience - after the audience - is Russell Crowe, who finally takes his place as a bona fide movie star. Exuding authority as a man's man able to stare down any situation and come out on top, Crowe has the steely power to make both men and women quiver at his virility. It's not just sex appeal. Crowe fills the screen with the larger-than-life presence of a mythical hero.
Four decades after "Ben-Hur," "Spartacus" and "Cleopatra" set the standard for ancient spectacle, it's exhilarating to experience the glint of clanging swords and gilded chariots in an idealized Roman landscape. "Gladiator" invents that spectacle anew in a mammoth production that resonates from its deeply intimate core.
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