We gave it an A-
Grand and rousing, Gladiator owes its shape and scope to the splashy historical ”sword-and-sandal movies” of the 1950s and ’60s, legendary cinema circuses like ”Ben-Hur” and ”Spartacus.” But Maximus (Russell Crowe), the charismatic general who stands at the center of director Ridley Scott’s giant arena, is, but for the breastplate, shield, and (when goaded into it) bloodthirsty fury, a brother-in-attitude of Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller in ”Saving Private Ryan.” They’re decent men forced by circumstance to perform extraordinary feats, faithful husbands who just want to go home, but who take up arms instead to fix a broken world. (They’re also both attached to units out of DreamWorks, Spielberg’s global theater of operations.)
Like ”Private Ryan,” ”Gladiator” charges into heart pounding battle just minutes into the first reel. Assembling his Roman legions for an assault on a barbarian horde, Maximus, the well-liked leader, circulates easily among his troops. ”At my signal — unleash hell!” he orders, whereupon Scott lets loose his own extraordinary assault. It’s a bravura sequence of flaming arrows, falling horses, and mortal combat that doesn’t copy ”Private Ryan”’s famous opening tour de force of carnage so much as raise a banner in admiration. It’s Scott the visual artist at his most deluxe.
The victory pleases Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), who loves Maximus more than he does his own weak yet treacherous son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), or Commodus’ shrewd, comely sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). The dying emperor would like the Spanish-born Maximus to succeed him, paving the way for Rome to once again become a republic, but Commodus doesn’t take the news well; for an indolent weasel, he’s remarkably resourceful about killing everyone Maximus loves. He nearly succeeds in having Maximus killed, too. Wounded, the general escapes but is then captured by slave traders, sold into bondage, and marked for certain death under the ownership of Proximo (Oliver Reed), a cynical supplier of gladiators for all occasions.
Maximus’ incognito return to Rome to fight in the Colosseum (in front of the new emperor, Commodus), his quick rise to fame as the town’s winningest warrior, and his big showdown with his old adversary fill the last act of ”Gladiator” — as do a dazzling display of old-time Roman crowd scenes and stadium acts conjured with computerized magic that would have slayed old sandal-movie showmen like William Wyler and Cecil B. DeMille. But as much as the director’s mise-en-scène dazzles, this is the rare Ridley Scott production in which individual characters have relatively secure separate identities.
”Gladiator,” though, is Crowe’s to win or lose — Caesar’s thumb up or thumb down, as it were. And he wins, colossally. The New Zealand-born, Australian-raised actor’s performances have each been so completely different from one another, his transformation so complete and self-abnegating as to erase the notion of a fundamental Russell Crowe. Previously, this disarming lack of a portable, consistent, publicity-friendly acting personality has gotten in the way of his becoming a marquee star. Not any more. The puffy, ashen whistle-blower Crowe played in ”The Insider” (for which he jolly well deserved the Oscar) has vanished, replaced by a brawny army general used to working the land.
This Maximus, with his lovely, meaty 1950s body mass like that of a William Holden or Robert Mitchum, has a farmer’s vanity-free self-confidence; he needs to hold and smell a handful of the earth before each battle. Heartily masculine, commanding yet capable of temperance, and with a warily, wearily understanding gaze, Crowe makes Maximus’ desire to go home when his job is done the greatest aspiration a man can have. Whether or not he gets there in the end doesn’t matter. What matters for today’s hero is the good fight, and ”Gladiator” KOs us with a doozy.