directed by Ridley Scott
(DreamWorks/Universal, 2000)

Gladiator is not just another B-movie killing spree with elaborate sets. It is the story of a humble, quiet and highly honorable soldier who is thrust into the dangerous position of being the unannounced successor to the most powerful figure in Rome.

When Maximus (Russell Crowe) is tapped by the emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), he tries to refuse. All he wants is to go home, to his family and his farm, but his loyalty to the Marcus Aurelius, to Rome and to the emperor's vision of restoring the Republic force him to accept the job. Of course, the emperor's son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), is none too pleased with this turn of events. After killing his father he orders the execution of Maximus and the destruction of his home and family. Maximus escapes and nearly kills himself trying to reach his wife and son in time, but arrives too late and collapses in the ruins of the villa. He is taken prisoner by slavers and sold in North Africa to the owner of a string of gladiators (Oliver Reed). On his recovery, Maximus begins his twin tasks: to stay alive, and to have revenge on the new emperor.

This is an exceptionally bloody movie. It begins with a major battle and much of the last half is set in the ring. However, the violence is not out of place -- men die in battle and the statement of the gladiators before the games begin really says it all: "We who are about to die, salute you." Despite the bloodshed, all of these scenes are extremely well filmed and choreographed. The battle tactics are distinctly second-century Roman, and while I am still not convinced that the cavalry should have had stirrups, everything else -- from the archers to the catapults to the legions -- looked accurate to the historical and archeological record. The scenes of the gladiatorial contests are equally realistic. It is one thing to read of a net and trident fight and quite another to see one that fits the 2000-year-old description exactly. So, be prepared for a brutal time, one that will make the concept of "blood and circuses" more real to you.

Gladiator both impressed and surprised me. The level of historical accuracy was higher than I had any hopes of seeing in a summer action blockbuster, as was the quality of the acting. I felt as if I had seen the landscapes of the Imperial provinces of Germania and northern Africa, and had felt the mist and ash and brutal sun on my face. I now have a better image than ever before of what the Imperial city of Rome might have looked like, and am very impressed with the graphics and special effects used to create the city scenes. Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix set each other off very well, with Phoenix playing Commodus as a weak, vain and ambitious man (just as the contemporary accounts of him do). Richard Harris and Oliver Reed (who died while making the movie) make their smaller roles rival those of the younger men and portray vivid, and well-rounded characters. Harris as the soldier/emperor/philosopher is especially good.

It is a classic tale of power and revenge, and as such is somewhat predictable. Yes, the evil emperor is killed by the "good" gladiator in the end and the Empire is returned to the hands of the people, but Scott manages to tell this very basic story without stilted lines or stock characters. Elaborate spectacle, oddly beautiful weather and dream sequences, and spare dialogue help keep Gladiator from being just another so-so historical epic.

[ by Ziya Reynolds ]

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