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'Gladiator': Two Severed Thumbs Up

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2000

   


    'Gladiator' Russell Crowe (left) stars in "Gladiator."
(DreamWorks and Universal)
At a recent screening of "Gladiator," rapturous applause broke out when (in the movie) arena warrior Russell Crowe thrust two swords into his opponent's gut, pulled them out, then decapitated him with both weapons, in a sort of double slicing action.

Awesome, dude of 180 A.D.!

This slice-and-dice move was pure Hollywood, of course. But, at the same time, the surprisingly spontaneous acclaim transported us directly to ancient Rome, where our ancestors did pretty much the same thing.

Clearly, humankind hasn't evolved that much from the old, thumbs-down for the Christians era. The only differences are: Our idea of a good time is a thumbs-up experience, thanks to movie patrician Roger Ebert; and we don't actually watch real carnage anymore. It's acted out for us, whether in pro wrestling or on celluloid film.

So, let's celebrate our shameless machismo and bloodlust. What's enjoyable about "Gladiator," directed by Ridley ("Blade Runner") Scott, is how it plays mischievously with this idea: that moviegoers are just modernized, bloodthirsty Roman rabble.

Of course, just like the plebians of the ancient Colosseum, we have our saving graces. We can all appreciate a hero worth saving. I mean, we are civilized and literate. We do read People magazine.

Hero? That's where Russell Crowe comes in. He's General Maximus, at the end of a great military campaign in Germania, who's the toast of Rome and the darling of the aging Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). A proud man who loves Rome, his wife and son, he's as great as men get in this kind of drama.

When Aurelius appoints Maximus his political successor, however, the emperor's scheming son, Commodus (a wonderfully villainous Joaquin Phoenix), kills the old man and orders his men to execute Maximus and, later, his family.

The general escapes, is captured by slave traders and sold to gladiator trainer and slave trader Proximo (Oliver Reed). After making his name as a gladiator in the provinces, Maximus, known only as "The Spaniard," returns to Rome, where he's forced to continue his enslaved life in the Colosseum. He lives for the day when he can face, once again, the man who destroyed his life.

During this time, Maximus develops bonds with fellow gladiators Juba (Djimon Hounsou) and Hagen (former bodybuilding champ Ralf Moeller); and, from his cell, reestablishes contact with Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), an old flame whose son Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark) is a potential future emperor.

Now, if the prospect of Winona getting her finger stuck in "How to Make an American Quilt" is about all the violence you can handle, this movie's not for you. Nor should you sit through "Gladiator" if you don't get weak in the knees at the gladiators' initial greeting to Caesar and the crowd: "We who are about to die salute you."

Man, talk about giving away the ending.

But if you enjoy visceral (and I mean visceral) action, crowd-whooping heroics and stirring acts of resistance against tyranny, if the aphorism "hack or be hacked" rings true, then "Gladiator" is one extended guilty pleasure.

And speaking of fallen warriors, this movie marks the last appearance by that beautiful rogue Oliver Reed. The actor, who appeared as Athos in Richard Lester's "Musketeers" films and distinguished himself in offbeat, heavy roles for 30 years, died while filming this. But in his swan song, he steals every scene he's in, whether he's complaining that an animal trader sold him two gay giraffes or offering Maximus the spoils of victory ("What do you want? Girl? Boy?"). He remains the charming bully he always was and, if we mourn anyone's passing in this entertainment, it should be his.

GLADIATOR (R, 154 minutes) – Contains graphic violence, sexual situations, but unfortunately, no swearing in Latin.

 

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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