"Gladiator" (Imdb listing) is a sprawling, visceral movie that'll appeal to anyone with revenge fantasies.
The film follows a Roman general named Maximus (a possible descendant of Biggus Dickus from "Life of Brian"). When we first meet this strapping soldier, he's about to wipe a pesky horde of savages from the Germanian forest and bring peace to the Roman Empire. He succeeds, but his victory is short-lived. Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), the beloved emperor of Rome, dies under mysterious circumstances and Maximus' less-than-enthusiastic support for the new regime leads to a death sentence. Maximus cunningly avoids death, but his wife and young son are killed by the new Emperor's legion of doom. While grieving, Maximus is nabbed by slave traders and forced to become a gladiator (hence the title of the film). Being a forward-thinking guy, Maximus realizes that his new position as captain of Team Disembowel is the means to an end. The "end" he's looking for is a chance to chop the new Emperor into wee pieces of chum. Further explanation will spoil the ending, but moviegoers can assume that things play out in an entertaining, violent fashion.
"Gladiator" could have been a colossal pile of horse manure had director Ridley Scott sought to create a mere blockbuster. Make no mistake, "Gladiator" is a blockbuster, but its expensive visuals are entwined with impressive performances.
Most notable are Russell Crowe, Richard Harris and Connie Nielsen. Unlike many of today's wisecracking A-list actors, Crowe prefers presence over catch phrases. He rarely raises his voice, but when he does, the audience perks up. As Maximus, Crowe's natural reticence adds to the character's nobility and strength. A lesser actor would have sought to inspire the troops (and the audience) through Oscar-clip speeches, but one look from Crowe says more than any long-winded diatribe.
Richard Harris, the venerable Irish actor, brings a wide range of compassion, regret and wisdom to his small role as Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius is a man obsessed with his legacy -- will he be remembered as just? ruthless? wise? Watching Harris' eyes melt as he reveals Aurelius' fears to Maximus is a moment of emotional purity.
Finally, Connie Nielsen shows that her low-rent performance in "Mission to Mars" was a fluke, not a trend. Nielsen plays Lucilla, the strong, faithful daughter of Marcus Aurelius who is forced to watch her weak brother guide Rome down a dark road. She's the antithesis of a useless heroine; without her, Maximus would be nothing more than a beefy gladiator with a chip on his shoulder.
Skittish critics will inevitably whine about "Gladiator's" violence, but pay no heed to these wimpy souls. Spurting blood and discarded appendages are shown, but Scott never lingers on these images. Far more time is given to the whirling colors and sounds of battle, not the results.
Speaking of sound, this movie is best served in a large, Dolby-equipped theatre. When the gladiators walk into the Colosseum for the first time, the sound of the crowd moves from a dull baseline to an encompassing roar. It's an immersive moment that, by itself, deserves an Oscar.
"Gladiator's" only faults lie in its reliance on good-vs.-evil cliches. Those who practice honor and faith will inevitably overthrow those who thrive on corruption and vice. Fortunately, Scott and his crew pushed themselves to create more than a big, violent movie. Any film that can run almost three hours without one butt-squirming moment deserves praise in spite of cliches.
Filmfodder Grade: A-