Somehow you feel this film should have an exclamation point in the title: "Gladiator!" The script and direction lavish so much love on Russell Crowe, the gladiator of the title, that you wish they had at least given him a personality. Instead he's defined only by circumstances and the actions of those around him, which in fact draw suspiciously upon Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus." Crowe is Maximus, a popular general in the emperor Marcus Aurelius's army, who begins the film by winning a great and bloody battle against the Germanic hordes in the year 180, thus securing Rome's northern borders. In the interest of accuracy in criticism I must point out that the battle appears to have been fought in a recently completed and thoroughly anachronistic clear-cut forest, similar to the one fought over and won by Antonio Banderas in "The 13th Warrior." Is there a statement here that clear-cut forests have their uses?
In any case, we learn from this victory that his troops love him, as does the aging emperor (Richard Harris), who asks Maximus to take over in Rome and root out the nogoodniks who are corrupting the place. But the emperor already has a son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who is a self-indulgent, cowardly layabout, with hints of an incestuous relationship with his sister, and before the film is fifteen minutes old Commodus, learning of the emperor's decision to name Maximus and not him as the next ruler, kills his father and orders Maximus killed. But because the movie still has another two hours to run, the killers are foiled and Maximus survives.
Here the script's continuity falters a bit, as we follow Maximus heading toward his home in Spain through what appears to be the Arizona desert, and arriving there only to find that, yes, Commodus has had his wife raped and, along with his little son, crucified and burned. Bad Commodus! And Maximus himself is captured by Commodus's men, transported to Morocco, and given as a slave to Proximo (Oliver Reed), a former gladiator, who quickly recognizes the swashbuckling skill his new prize possesses. Under Proximo's tutelage Maximus becomes the leader of the gladiator/slaves, and they make it to the big time -- the Colosseum in Rome, where Commodus now rules by giving the people bread and circuses, and gladiators who kill on command. There are as many decapitations and amputations in this film as in "Saving Private Ryan."
Here the film makes some tentative gestures toward the kind of verismo politics that we saw in "Spartacus," with moments of intrigue in the Senate and in the emperor's palace, but nothing is allowed to interfere for long with director Ridley Scott's focus on Crowe and his exploits in the Colosseum ring, which lead to the ultimate, and unfortunately unbelievable, fight to the death with Commodus in the Colosseum.
Nevertheless, the film is terrific to watch. Scott ("Blade Runner," "Alien," "Thelma and Louise") knows how to make a film work visually as well as anyone today, and "Gladiator," except for its completely mechanical script, is eminently satisfactory in that area. The much-talked-about computer-generated scenes, with thousands of Commodus's soldiers marching as though in Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will," and the supposed throngs in the Colosseum, work fine and show how far this new technology has come. The editing and the ordering of sequences, though, leave much to be desired. As simple as the plot is, Scott has needlessly sliced, diced, and chopped the story line, as though to fool us into thinking that it has more depth and complexity than it does.
The surprise here, for me, is Crowe, who didn't get much to work with from the scriptwriters in the way of personality. He brings an almost insanely focused energy to the role; he's a raging killer trapped in the body of a democrat. Having lost all the weight he put on for "The Insider," he has the body of a gladiator and the barely controlled voice of a man who was born to kill. It's a wonderful performance that almost saves the film from itself.
Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly since villains have a way of capturing writers' imaginations more than heroes, the most fully realized character in the film is the young emperor Commodus, about whom we learn more than we may even want to know. And Joaquin Phoenix, with his pudding face and menacing voice, gives him every bit of depth possible, in a performance that should open many doors for character roles, in better films, in years to come.