Rated R - Running Time: 2:34 - Released 5/5/00

After his Best Actor nomination for last year's The Insider, Russell Crowe has moved into the big leagues, assuming the title role in Gladiator, a star vehicle of astounding proportions. The bitter truth is that while Crowe does an excellent job impersonating fellow Aussie action-hero Mel Gibson, the film's writers (David H. Franzoni and John Logan, with William Nicholson) and director (Ridley Scott) have caved in to the temptation to produce one of those technically superlative, appallingly expensive, loud, sweeping, 2½-hour-long epics with lots of grit and bloodlust but very little soul.

In a story that borrows heavily from The Ten Commandments, with generous sprinklings of Braveheart and Spartacus thrown in, Crowe plays Maximus, the winningest Roman general since Julius Caesar. He is so beloved by the elderly emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) that he is chosen over the emperor's own snotty son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) to succeed him. But before the emperor's wish can be made known, Commodus kills the old man and assumes the throne himself, ordering Maximus to be executed. With the kind of superhuman strength that makes action-movie stars what they are, Maximus eludes and kills his captors, only to be enslaved by Proximo (played by now-deceased Oliver Reed), a sort of 180 A.D. version of Don King, who trains slaves to fight to the death for the amusement of whoever pays to watch.

With his uncanny ability to win carefully choreographed sword battles, Maximus ascends to the level of superstar, winding up in the Roman coliseum doing his thing for his old nemesis, Caesar Commodus. Although the emperor's first impulse is to re-execute the man he thought he already executed, he is forced by Maximus's huge fan following to adopt more subtle methods, like putting him in the ring against armed charioteers and hungry Bengal tigers. (Well, he's kind of dumb, so this is as subtle as he gets.) But that doesn't work, so Commodus finally has to take the rascal to the woodpile himself, not realizing until too late who's going to get the spanking.

To say this epic is predictable is to make an understatement of similarly epic proportions. Oh, it's not that it isn't pretty, and there are many clanking sword battles and tons of gore, if you're into that, but watching Crowe go into the rubbing-sand-on-his-palms schtick reminded me of Tom Laughlin carefully taking off his shoes in all those Billy Jack movies. One has to consciously supress the urge to shout out, "Oh-Oh! He's gonna open up a can of whoop-ass now!"

Connie Nielsen provides a credible performance as Commodus's sister, the woman of power who still loves Maximus and tries to subvert the plans of her own brother in order to protect him. And Phoenix is suitably effete and innefectual as the bratty young emperor. But from Ridley Scott, who directed films like Alien and Thelma & Louse, I would expect a film with more substance than this. ***

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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