You've got to love a hero in a metal, pleated mini-skirt.
In Gladiator, this summer's first true blockbuster, Russell Crowe (The Insider) acts up a righteous storm in his Roman get-up, proving once and for all that his versatility as an actor matches his prowess. Following the box office success of Gladiator, Hollywood will no doubt begin hurling roles his way -- a Popeye remake? I see Crowe as the sailor with the corncob pipe and bulging biceps.
Seriously, Crowe's brooding, intense and energetic performance saves Gladiator from being merely a stunning, crowd-winning bloodbath, which it primarily is, adding a level of earnestness that makes you actually care who wins in the ring.
Crowe plays Maximus, a Roman general who is so victorious in battle and so popular with his troops that when Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris looking like he's indulged in a few too many acid trips) dies, and his morally corrupt son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), rises to the throne (diabolically and dishonestly), Commodus immediately orders that Maximus be put to death.
But Maximus, ever so handy with a sword, escapes his execution and hotfoots it for Spain, bucolic home of his wife and child. When he arrives, Roman soldiers have already burned his land and brutally murdered his family. Crowe goes into acting overdrive, snot slinging from his nose as he bawls, kissing the blackened feet of his dead wife.
Maximus collapses and, inexplicably, is sold into slavery -- why didn't they just kill him? -- landing in northern Africa where he becomes a gladiator under the tutelage of Proximo (Oliver Reed), a delightfully corrupt and decadent fight promoter -- think Don King in flowing robes. Maximus, whose blood runs cold now, is the ultimate fighter, chopping off the heads and hands of the biggest, fiercest foes. And when he hears Proximo is taking the show to the Colosseum in Rome, he begins to plot his revenge on Commodus.
Director Ridley Scott would like you to think Gladiator is about strength, honor, duty, democracy and the danger of mob rule. In truth, it is an old-fashioned revenge drama -- and a pretty good one at that. Crowe and Phoenix make marvelous foes. Phoenix is a sinister little chicken shit who begrudges Maximus the affection of his late father, and Crowe is marvelously stoic in his revenge. Various characters thrown in to thicken the plot -- Commodus' beautiful sister and her little son, in particular -- serve only to slow the momentum of the film once the blood-letting games have begun.
And herein lies the central problem of Gladiator. Scott is so enamored of his production team's ability to show heads, hands and other body parts being severed, that the fight scenes become clamorous and redundant. The Academy will have to come up with a new special effects category next year -- blood spattering and slinging -- to fully recognize the cinematic achievement of Gladiator.
The digitally enhanced re-creation of the Colosseum is spectacular. If only the fight scenes had been equally grandly filmed. Instead of seeing the overall choreography, we are subjected to deafening chaos and endless close-up shots of swords clanging and heads flying. As an action flick, Gladiator is not nearly so cleverly filmed or blocked as, say, The Matrix.
Formulaic and predictable, Gladiator does its genre proud, but ultimately doesn't break any new ground. It is memorable largely for giving us Russell Crowe in the role of a pumped-up action hero, a role that will no doubt catapult him to the forefront of Hollywood stardom, for better or for worse.