[Screen It]

(2000) (Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix) (R)

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Action/Adventure: Having been sentenced to die for not supporting the new emperor, a Roman general escapes and then seeks out revenge upon the corrupt ruler.
General Maximus (RUSSELL CROWE) is one of the greatest military leaders ancient Rome has ever known. Victorious over the last army of Germanic renegades, Maximus looks forward to returning home to his wife and son and living the peaceful life of an everyday farmer.

Yet, the dying Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (RICHARD HARRIS), who is distraught over what Rome has become, wants to hand over his power to Maximus under the condition that he then turn it over to the people through the now subservient Roman senate. Maximus isn't thrilled with the idea for he has no experience in politics, but before he can give the emperor an answer, Aurelius' son, Commodus (JOAQUIN PHOENIX), the biological heir to the throne, covertly kills his father and then asks for the general's support.

When Maximus doesn't give it, the new Emperor orders him and his family to be executed. While Maximus manages to escape, his family doesn't. Shocked from that eventual discovery and ill from a wound he received during his escape, Maximus passes out, only to find that he's been captured and to be sold as a slave.

Purchased along with fellow slave Juba (DJIMON HOUNSOU) by former gladiator, turned promoter, Proximo (OLIVER REED), and posing as a Spaniard, Maximus suddenly finds himself competing in small gladiator contests outside Rome where he must kill or risk being killed. As his reputation grows, Maximus soon discovers that he may have a way to strike revenge on Commodus.

He's returned to the capital with his sister, Lucilla (CONNIE NIELSEN), who's happy to see her young son, Lucius (SPENCER TREAT CLARK), but isn't thrilled about her corrupt brother being her people's ruler, which also holds true for Senator Gracchus (DEREK JACOBI) and other members of the Senate. As Maximus gets ever closer to once again facing Commodus, who's becoming increasingly dangerous and corrupt, it's only a matter of time before events come to a head between the two.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
As people tend to get older and realize that they're no longer the trendsetters or the "youngsters" of the world, they seem to enjoy observing (translation: complaining) that, "They don't make 'em like they use to." We've all heard it before as certain segments of the population complain that cars aren't as well made as they once were, that music is now just a bunch of noise where it once was wonderful to listen to, or that politicians are more corrupt and less effective than in the past.

Of course, for some people, movies fall into that same category where certain viewers (usually the ostentatious film critics) state with absolute disdain that Hollywood doesn't and/or can't make movies like it once did. While that often seems quite true when one's viewing the umpteenth comedy set in high school or the latest installment in a horror film series that's getting up there in the Roman numerals following the original title, one must remember that just as many bad movies came out decades ago as they do today.

It's just that time has a wonderful capability of erasing the memories of most of those from the past, leaving just the best to shine. For those who still aren't satisfied, however, there's a new film in town that's certain to make fans of the old, Hollywood epic, such as "Ben Hur" and "Spartacus," weak in the knees. That film is "Gladiator," an entertaining and well-made throwback to the magnificent wide-screen treasures of yesteryear.

If there's one film you can see on the silver screen this summer, this may just be the one, for you certainly don't want its scale confined to the dimensions of your TV set. Running at a swift, but near epic-like length of around two and a half hours, the film is glorious to behold in all of its big screen splendor, features strong performances from its cast, and sports a well-polished script and adroit direction.

Taking some artistic license with the history and players of ancient Rome, director Ridley Scott ("Thelma and Louise," "Alien"), who works from a screenplay by writers David Franzoni ("Amistad"), John Logan ("Any Given Sunday," HBO's "RKO 281") and William Nicholson ("Shadowlands," "First Knight"), essentially transplants the time tested and certainly audience pleasing revenge plot into a Roman setting. Yes, the same basic story that's fueled many a yarn throughout time - a man is wronged and seeks revenge against those responsible - and made cinematic legends out of the likes of Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood -- who appeared in their share of similarly plotted films -- is inserted into a time when some young woman from Kansas might exclaim, "Lions and Tibers and Gladiators, Oh My!"

By creating the fictitious General Maximus as a powerful and honorable, but wronged man who loses nearly everything near and dear to him, Scott and company have fashioned a strong protagonist for whom the audience will not only root, but also be near completely mesmerized with. It's a simple but effective plot device that's clearly worked in the past and it wonderfully does so here as well.

Of course, it certainly helps to have a commanding figure in the lead role and Russell Crowe ("The Insider," "L.A. Confidential") delivers that and more. Fresh off his Oscar-nominated performance in "The Insider" Crowe had traded the soft, extra poundage he gained for that role in exchange for a properly chiseled look here - so much so, in fact, that the two characters are dissimilar enough that at times you can't believe the same actor embodied both. Perfectly cast and delivering a knockout take on his character, Crowe's performance may very well lead to some serious accolades and possible end of the year nominations.

A heroic character obviously needs a worthy adversary for the correct amounts of conflict to build, and this film again wonderfully delivers in that regard. Although I don't believe I would have made Joaquin Phoenix ("Return to Paradise," "To Die For") my first choice for playing the part of the conniving and corrupt Emperor Commodus, the actor not only ends up looking perfect for the role, but also delivers a believable performance and plays well against Crowe's character.

Supporting performances are strong across the board and include Connie Nielsen ("Mission to Mars," "Soldier") as the emperor's sister and Maximus' supposed one-time love interest (a point that could have been fleshed out a bit more), the late Oliver Reed ("The Three Musketeers," "Oliver!") as the gladiator promoter, Richard Harris ("The Field," "Camelot") as the late Emperor, and Djimon Hounsou ("Amistad," "Deep Rising") as Maximus' fellow slave. One wishes, however, that the latter had a bit more of a fleshed-out part since the few moments in which he gets to emote are quite powerful.

As in any good epic, the combined technical work is as much a character as the flesh and blood ones and the results here are extremely impressive. From John Mathieson ("Plunkett & Macleane," the upcoming "Hannibal") and his widescreen cinematography to Arthur Max's ("G.I. Jane," "Seven") production design, to the costumes by Janty Yates ("Plunkett & Macleane," "Jude"), the score by Hans Zimmer ("As Good As It Gets," "The Lion King") & Lisa Gerrard ("The Insider," "Heat"), the visual and special effects by John Nelson ("City of Angels," "Anaconda") and Neil Corbould ("Saving Private Ryan," "The Fifth Element") and the stunts choreographed by Phil Neilson ("The Corruptor," "G.I. Jane"), the film is a near constant feast for the eyes.

Indeed, and notwithstanding the efforts of 1995's "Braveheart," one would be hard pressed to find a film with as much "old school" visual grandeur as this picture contains. From the opening battle sequence featuring fire raining down from the sky onto the enemy - via arrows and catapults -- to the many gladiator contests, this picture is nothing short of amazing to behold.

That pretty much sums of the picture as a whole as well. Featuring incredibly strong performances, a taught and time-tested revenge plot, near perfect direction and an impressive visual sense, the film may just become the sleeper hit of 2000. Thoroughly entertaining and even genuinely heartfelt at times, "Gladiator" might not appease everyone's tastes, but for those looking for an old-fashioned epic tale that has the look and feel of the way grand movies once did, you certainly won't go wrong with this picture. We give the film an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed April 27, 2000 / Posted May 5, 2000

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