It’s tough selling bloody heroism on a Homeric scale to a younger crowd raised on Luke Skywalker and Rambo. These days, the machinery of spectacle has gotten so sophisticated and so stunt-driven that emotional depth only slows a guy down. (The apotheosis of hero-dude blankness: Keanu Reeves’ Neo in The Matrix.) Yet it’s Steven Spielberg, grand wizard of stunts and special effects, who has most influentially steered contemporary notions of bravery back along older-fashioned routes. 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. Certainly those incorrigible old thespians Harris and Reed play the bejaysus out of their character roles; there’s also a deliciously creepy perversity elegantly mustered by Phoenix. (His Commodus is entirely too enamored of his sister, but then again, as happens in such muscle-bound extravaganzas, Lucilla appears to be the only woman residing in all of the Eternal City.) And it’s a sly pleasure to see Derek Jacobi tied in a toga again as the empire’s most reputable senator, some two decades after the actor starred on public television in the definitive Roman historical saga, I, Claudius.
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. A-