An intensely masculine actor with the ability to be as thoroughly convincing in a tailored suit ("The Insider") as in the suit of armor here, Crowe has a patent on heroic plausibility. Whether it's as commanding general Maximus, adored by the armed multitudes, or a friendless man fighting for his life in a "when bad things happen to good people" plot, Crowe brings essential physical and psychological reality to the role. Even Spartacus himself might want to echo Billy Crystal's Oscar night wail of "I am so not Spartacus" after seeing what Crowe is up to here.
Initially inspired by a nifty 19th-century painting of gladiators in combat by French artist Gerome, Scott and his production crew, led by cinematographer John Mathieson and production designer Arthur Max, have briskly re-created the Roman empire, circa AD 180.
"Gladiator" is supremely atmospheric, shrewdly mixing traditional Roman movie elements like neatly trimmed senators in carefully pressed togas and fighters who say, "We who are about to die salute you" with the latest computer-generated wonders. Yes, we've all seen the initials "SPQR" Maximus has tattooed on his arm, but the Goodyear blimp-type shot floating over an SRO Coliseum is something invitingly new.
The problem with "Gladiator" is that Scott is so good at creating alternate universes that he hates to leave and overstays his welcome. Too long at a full 2 1/2 hours, "Gladiator" is not as nimble outside the arena as inside.
The film depletes its considerable resources and hampers its momentum by spending too much time on predictable plot twists and standard "The mob is Rome. Who will control them?" dialogue by the screenwriting tag team of David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson.
"Gladiator" opens with one of its best sequences, a "Saving Private Ryan"-type battle between the Roman legions led by Maximus and rowdy German tribes who, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, picked the wrong empire to get tough with. Wrecking an area of Britain that had previously been scheduled for deforestation, the struggle utilized 16,000 flaming arrows and 10,000 of the nonflaming variety, not to mention fully functional catapults in a violent conflagration made a bit more palatable by the lightning editing of Pietro Scalia (who cut Oliver Stone's "JFK").
All Maximus wants after the fight is over is to go home to Spain and his wife and son, but Marcus Aurelius, the wise old owl of an emperor (Richard Harris, one of the film's detachment of British actors) has other plans. He wants to bypass his son Commodus and have Maximus succeed him at the top. "Commodus is not a moral man," the emperor says somberly. "You are the son I should have had."
A single glimpse of Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and you know that the old man is being too kind. From his first frame, the emperor's son has the look of complete dementia, combining ruthlessness, ambition and lack of decency in one sniveling body. Not even his shrewd sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), who apparently had a "do you think a princess and a guy like me" romance with Maximus years earlier, is a match for him in connivance.
Before you can say "We who are about to die, etc.," Maximus suffers through a complete life change. He ends up a slave chained to Juba ("Amistad's" Djimon Hounsou) and owned by Proximo, a provincial trainer of gladiators. Energetically played by Oliver Reed in the last role of his life, Proximo is a former gladiator himself who teaches Maximus the tricks of the trade and makes it possible for him to go to Rome and dream of revenge against the new emperor. That's right, it's our old friend Commodus, and he's more twisted than ever.
It's in the backstage intrigue that surrounds the emperor and his court that "Gladiator" is at its least compelling. Too much time is spent on vacillating senators, pro forma betrayals and overfamiliar lines like, "The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate but the sand of the Coliseum." Close your eyes and you can almost hear Victor Mature saying the same thing.
When it comes to hand-to-hand combat inside the arena, which the film treats like the professional wrestling of its day, albeit with more permanent results, "Gladiator" is more in its element. Helped by Crowe's physicality, some cooperative tigers (real and digital) and an effective score (co-written by Hans Zimmer and Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard, who also worked on "The Insider"), these matches provide all the visceral excitement you could ask for.
It's interesting to note that though Maximus is an invented character, both Marcus Aurelius and Commodus are drawn from history. In fact, the real Commodus, or so one respected authority tells us, was "one of the few Roman emperors of whom nothing good can be said," a gladiator groupie who ended up being strangled by one of his wrestling partners "with the collusion of his favorite mistress."
Let's see the World Wrestling Federation touch that.