There is a killing late in Gladiator, Ridley Scott's new heroic epic, and it is one of those wonderfully cathartic extinguishings that make wide-eyed audiences rise and cheer. We've been herded across much of western Europe by this point, through Germanic mud, Spanish fields and Italian dust, and we've seen many men falling in combat, all in an attempt to build us up for the kicker. The problem is, not a single surprise awaits us along the hard road to the movie's perversely obvious wrap-up. We have been sharing an extravaganza of grand design, superb acting, deft direction and terrific sound and scoring (courtesy of ultra-hip Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance), but the movie's entire course has been apparent from the opening minutes.
"Strength and honor," intones Maximus (Russell Crowe), a powerful general in the Roman army, establishing the theme for the entire story. Observed by the wizened emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), Maximus leads his men on a massive strike against the annoyed barbarians of Germania, essentially one more stop on the world tour of Roman conquest. It's a pitch-perfect scenario: the bleak winter forest (actually shot in England), the scores of warriors, the manic horses, the firestorm of flaming arrows, the snow so ethereal it seems to fall upward. It is here that we observe Maximus's incredible charisma and vision: "At my signal," he calmly commands his men, "unleash hell." The men do, but, unfortunately, so does the editor, chopping up the film with such diabolical randomness that we emerge less consumed than confused.
Undaunted by the wholesale gutting of this would-be spectacular sequence, the war-weary Maximus reports to his Caesar. Marcus Aurelius is old and ready to pass on his mantle for the good of the Roman Republic. The drama here is elegant and moving, but Harris's dialogue is best paraphrased: "So, Max, you are obviously a Reluctant Hero who's eager to return to your pastoral existence with your sultry wife and cuddly son. But here's the thing: I'm about to keel over, and I don't want my emperor status wasted on my porcelain-brained son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), because he's obviously much less reluctant than you, and therefore less noble and, you know, virtuous. So whaddaya say...want Rome?"
Maximus accepts -- reluctantly, of course -- but fate has other plans. Following the inevitable bit of usurping -- a patricidal unpleasantness greeted first with horror and then with self-preserving acceptance by Commodus's sister, and Maximus's enigmatic former flame, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) -- the flushed Commodus orders Maximus and his family killed. By turns nimble and bludgeoning, Maximus alone narrowly escapes, and away we go with a by-the-numbers retread of The Outlaw Josey Wales or Braveheart, albeit one with astonishing Roman production design (Arthur Max) and costumes (Janty Yates).
Apart from a gently breathing dead emperor and some laughably awful flocks of birds, Gladiator's look is a consistent delight to the eye, ultimately upstaging the thin story line itself. Scott remains a genius of the lens, creating one thrilling frame after another. While this is obvious in the frequent battle scenes and the occasional panorama of Rome, his talent is equally apparent in the intimate moments, where his mise-en-scène (a wrought-iron rook, a glowing alabaster visage) adds a sumptuousness altogether lacking in most action films. The movie seems as if it was more enjoyable to make than it is to watch.
Nonetheless, the narrative does continue, as Maximus descends into slavery, where he encounters a buddy in Juba (Djimon Hounsou), as well as a demographic-widener for the audience. Both excellent fighters, the two are sold to Proximo (the late Oliver Reed), a rough-hewn showbiz mogul who runs a gladiator camp where buff dudes come to, like, slay each other. As Proximo reveals that he was once a slave, released from bondage by a benevolent leader, Maximus capitalizes on the entertainment value of his battle skills, striking a deal. The new Caesar is transforming Rome into a massive festival to elicit the support of the masses, so why not take the gladiators to the Coliseum? Proximo, ever the poet, concedes, "The great whore will suckle us until we are fat and happy and can suckle no more!"
Suckle, perhaps, but suck, definitely, as the script plugs along through battles, squabbling senators (Derek Jacobi, David Schofield, John Shrapnel), battles, vague attempts at incest, battles and more battles. The crux is that our valiant gladiator Maximus seeks both his personal revenge and Marcus Aurelius's desired political order at the expense of the potty-mouthed Commodus. Since a direct confrontation is ill-advised, Maximus is required to win the favor of the Coliseum mob in order to rinse Commodus's bowl free of adolescent tyranny. No mean feat.
Apart from a genuine chuckle culled from the term "vexation," Gladiator takes itself incredibly seriously. This is an admirable effort, as many people strove to render this movie important, while the province of parody languished a mere sandal-stride away. Fortunately, the performers make the most of their predictable trajectory, and there's simply too much talent here to dismiss the film. Reed is ideal as Proximo, sincere in his unctuous way and, most prophetically, he ruminates upon his own demise. Crowe reveals a new turn in the wounded-thug persona he honed in L.A. Confidential, shouldering his heroic responsibilities with immense grace under pressure (you are dared to laugh at the snot on his mustache). Hounsou and Nielsen aren't given much to work with, but without them, friendship and love, however fleeting and tragic, do not exist at all.
It is also a great pleasure to see Derek Jacobi and Richard Harris on the screen again, surrounded by classical trappings. Jacobi instills his Senator Gracchus with a passion for justice, struggling to keep Rome from becoming the lavatory Commodus would have it be. Harris, similarly, gives Marcus Aurelius immense dignity, showing him to be brilliant in territorial conquest but lousy at fatherhood, creating the foundation for this entire conflict. Between these elders juts the loose catapult son, credibly delivered by Phoenix. The only shame is that the young actor isn't given more opportunity to provoke our compassion for the power-mad, undisciplined emperor; Gladiator would have been more impressive if it had stepped past its own righteousness and shown more sympathy for its own devil.
Still, it's nice to see massive entertainment like this on the big screen. Perhaps, if this makes some money, it may be possible to explore wider stories and more complex themes, rather than the stubborn preservation of outdated societal models that a movie like this endorses. Surprise and delight us! After all, as Scott himself says (in an ironic statement that seems to have slipped over the heads of the executives at DreamWorks and Universal), "Entertainment has frequently been used by leaders as a means to distract an abused citizenry." If that's not a call for real heroes to rise, what is?
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.