- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2000

Ridley Scott's Roman costume saga "Gladiator" prompts one to consult a famous source. In an early chapter of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Edward Gibbon summarized the characters of the principal dynastic figures depicted in the movie: the esteemed emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (A.D. 169-180), impersonated with haggard authority in the opening reel of "Gladiator" by Richard Harris, and his lamentable heir (and natural son) Commodus (180-192), played with severely deficient menacing authority by the overmatched Joaquin Phoenix.

The last stages of Commodus' disgraceful reign were distinguished by years of bloodthirsty spectacle, with the emperor himself executing captured animals and slave opponents by the hundreds while playing gladiator. Indeed, he found it satisfying to be promoted as a new Hercules.

The filmmakers find themselves in a fix with Commodus the gladiator-despot because they also want to glorify gladiators, supposedly the models for contemporary pro wrestlers and football players. They engineer a premature downfall for Commodus at the hands of a fictional hero: Russell Crowe as a former general called Maximus who bounces back from persecution and fugitive slave status in the guise of a gladiator from the North African boondocks.

Being a streamlined modern movie in certain respects, "Gladiator" prefers its Maximus as a hurry-up and in-your-face rebuke to despotism. Emerging almost overnight as a superlethal performer nominally bound to an impresario called Proximo (a gruff and endearing farewell role for the late Oliver Reed), angry Max gets to hurl open defiance at the tyrant who demanded his head and slaughtered his family a few sequences earlier.

While accelerating this conflict in a preposterous way, Mr. Scott's writing team (David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson) fails to streamline the domestic intrigue within a three-member royal family. Commodus keeps signaling wicked, incestuous designs on older sister, Lucilla, played by Connie Nielsen, and her adolescent son Lucius, played by Spencer Treat Clark. Impotence always seems to rescue them from degrading insinuations.

Gibbon had Marcus Aurelius in mind as an exemplar of virtue and perfection, Commodus of vice and degeneracy. The last major movie to exploit this stark contrast was Anthony Mann's "The Fall of the Roman Empire" in 1964. Curiously, Mr. Mann had been replaced a few years earlier as the director of "Spartacus," the Kirk Douglas-Stanley Kubrick epic about a gladiator who becomes the general of a slave army a century or so before the period recalled by Mr. Scott.

That role switch looks even sounder as a dramatic game plan after watching Mr. Crowe get stuck with the reverse, which would have profoundly demoralized any man who had commanded a Roman army. Confusing its own target audience with the vintage Roman "mob," the filmmakers talk themselves into the fantasy that instant acclaim as a gladiator would give Maximus all the leverage in the world to undermine Commodus. Fat chance, even with Joaquin Phoenix miscast as Commodus.

"Spartacus" remains the most satisfying and stirring Hollywood epic of the kind Mr. Scott aspires to revive while hordes of men prepare to see if "Gladiator" measures up to exaggerated expectations this weekend. It doesn't, despite flurries of impressive imagery and dynamic spectacle, beginning with a flamboyant mismatch of Roman might and barbarian resistance in a forest on the German frontier.

Even at this stage, shortcomings in the Scott system of illusion are conspicuous. The battle in the forest seems to end prematurely and rely on blurry and abrupt cuts that muddle a rousing buildup. After Maximus goes gladiatorial, his prowess looks too easy similar to the norms of martial-arts thrillers rather than the ostensible period.

And when Maximus plays the Colosseum, the chariots and tigers cued to harass him do not get an adequate showcase, so both fizzle into overblown threats to the hero.

**

TITLE: "Gladiator"

RATING: R (Frequent graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson.

RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes

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