Cinema Signal:

The Way of the Gladiator

Read about their training, their lives, their deaths

. "Gladiator"

Forty years ago they would have cast Kirk Douglas in this kind of action epic, as they did in "Spartacus". Five years ago, it would have been Mel Gibson, as in "Braveheart". Today, when it comes to rugged hero, charismatic leader type, it's Russell Crowe and we say, "it's about time."

We say that because it took Hollywood long enough to give him his due. He should have won the Academy Award for best actor for his work in "L.A. Confidential" but was passed over by the actor's branch of the Academy for some strange reason. He wasn't even nominated. My guess is that he was not only relatively unknown then, but he was from outside the community (New Zealand/Australia).

Whatever -- he's on his way now, and the downside is that, given his nomination for last year's "The Insider" and now this major epic, he'll be in every other biggie and become overexposed to the point that we'll wish he'd take some time off. But, there is good reason for casting the guy -- he's got "leader of men" written all over him with a magnetism that is no act. Crowe simply has this quality and employs it to advantage in his work.

Overlong by a half hour, the story is not untypical of many another historical epic. This one is about the Roman Empire at the time of the death of emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). The emperor sees his general and brilliant strategist Maximus (Crowe) as a better successor than his own son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). But, Commodus is having none of this. Since Marcus Aurelius' has made no public announcement of his intentions yet, Commodus seizes the moment when he's told of it and strangles the old man, taking the succession for himself. (This doesn't have much in common with history but it makes for a good protagonist vs. antagonist yarn.

Commodus' sister (Connie Nielsen), though enamored of the great general, has a son who is destined as the successor next in line. She suspects her brother's iniquity in the passing of their father, but goes along with the ruse keeping self-interest ever in mind. Meanwhile, despite her enduring faithfulness to Maximus and eventual aid in his destiny, he is not inclined to give her a tumble.

Wily, canny and exceedingly cruel, Commodus orders his Praetorian Guards to dispose of Maximus. Expectedly, the plot is not truncated at this point and we find the equally deadly Maximus overpowering his assassination detail. He rushes to his home, only to find that the Praetorian have preceded him there and destroyed his wife and son. While grieving this barbarity, he's captured by a slave trader and subsequently sold to Proximo (Oliver Reed) to be turned into a gladiator.

His stadia triumphs soon see him in Rome where the unscrupulous new emperor, Commodus, has initiated a season of games in the greatest stadium of all, a re-created (fabulous model and digital work) Coliseum. The idea is to convince his subjects to love and accept him. But, surprise of surprises, who do they really love?

The outstanding accomplishment here is the gore-drenched action. It's a virtual reality cornucopia of how death is achieved in battle and in hand-to-hand combat. Be forewarned, this recipe is machismo with extract of testosterone. Think slashed body parts and droplets of blood falling like pastoral snow.

But it's fair to say that the action doesn't outbalance the flow of the story. The three credited writers and director Ridley Scott kept their eye carefully on story, character and plausibility -- at least as much of it as this kind of saga calls for. This is no hack job -- there's careful thought evident in how far to go in suggesting what can only be conjectured. If you're going to enjoy this entertainment, don't be overly preoccupied with historical accuracy. There was a Marcus Aurelius who was a Roman emperor (who bore no particular resemblance to the one presented here) but General Maximus is an entirely fictitious creation and, hence, so is the conflict between him and Commodus. So what? This was conceived and presented as good action entertainment. You decide if its intent is successful.

Other players worth noting are Derek Jacobi as Graccus, the opposition senator, and Djimon Hounsou as Maximus' gladiator buddy, Juba. And, speaking of successors, is Russell Crowe now in line to step into the action shoes vacated by Arnold Schwartznegger?

Estimated cost: $107,000,000. Worldwide revenues: $454,207,146 (Variety).

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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