By Joe Lozito
Rome, Sweet Rome
Ridley Scott is back. After a few stunningly questionable entries into his filmography ("G.I. Jane", "White Squall"), the director of "Bladerunner" and "Alien" invests his new film "Gladiator" with stunning visuals and tangible surroundings.
The film's story is a tried-and-true sword-and-sandal revenge epic. The aptly-named Roman General Maximus is betrayed by the new Emperor and finds himself broken to the status of slave. He must then fight his way back to the Coliseum to face off against his oppressors.
Once again, like the Hollywood epics of the 50s and 60s, Rome is just past its heyday - on the decline thanks to corruption and excessive hubris. The elder statesmen are brought to life ably by Richard Harris and Oliver Reed (in his final performance). Even the new guard - Emperor Commodus, played as just enough of a whining brat by Joaquin Phoenix, and his sister played in sultry, silken glory by Connie Nielsen - strike the right note.
Of course, the movie really rests on Maximus' ample shoulders. And Russell Crowe is perfect for the part. With his Australian-cum-American-cum-British accent and his single-minded quest for revenge, he is reminiscent of Mel Gibson (who is said to have been in the running for the role) in his early days. Indeed, at heart, Mr. Crowe's character is Mad Maximus, the Rome Warrior. But, thankfully, like all the characters in the film, he is not without his moments. Mr. Crowe imbues Maximus with genuine sadness, pathos and, yes, even humor (unlike that sourpuss that graced this year's Oscars with his presence). When asked what he would say to a romantic conquest in the afterlife, Maximus smirks "none of your business".
It is Mr. Crowe's performance that gives "Gladiator" its much-needed heart, and Mr. Scott's camera that gives it its spectacle. Mr. Scott reinvents the Roman epic for a new generation. Courtesy of computer rendered graphics, Mr. Scott's camera is able to swim in and around the Roman empire as it might have appeared. Clearly, Mr. Scott and his crew have done much research in bringing the period to life. Of course, the story is largely fictional and, while the actors speak eloquently, their speech patterns are somewhere between Latin and the type of language you'd expect from "Xena, Warrior Princess". Still, the film is good, at times grizzly, fun - of epic proportions.