Films dealing with adventure and high drama in antiquity were cinematic fixtures pretty much from the inception of moviemaking through their burnout in the '60s. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, Ridley Scott's Gladiator finds Russell Crowe donning sword and sandals to enter the world of chariot races, effete Caesars, and suspiciously British-sounding senators. It's a welcome, if familiar, return to one of cinema's more dubious genres. A Cinemascope epic retrofitted for the CGI age, Gladiator combines the autumnal Rome setting of The Fall Of The Roman Empire with the gladiatorial theatrics and populist politics of Spartacus and the nobleman-made-lowly plot of Ben-Hur. Crowe stars as a Roman general under the command of philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). After Crowe defeats an encroaching barbarian horde in an exciting opening sequence, Harris decides to make him the protectorate of Rome during its transition back to a Republic, a decision that doesn't sit well with scheming son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, in a campy part at least partially informed by Malcolm McDowell's turn in Caligula, but nonetheless not as crazy as the real Commodus). Phoenix orders Crowe's execution, a fate he escapes in just enough time to return home to find his family viciously murdered. Shortly thereafter, he is abducted by slave traders, becomes a gladiator, and sets about seeking revenge. Virtually nothing here hasn't been done before, but it's been a while, and that makes all the difference. Scott's visual sense gets a great workout from the various imperial settings, the action sequences enthrall, Crowe is a compelling lead (it's hard to imagine Gladiator working with anyone else), and the film's digital re-creations of everything from the Colosseum to actor Oliver Reed (who died during shooting) rank among the most impressive uses of the technology to date. In the end, Gladiator is overdrawn and too insubstantial for its own good, just like the old days, but it satisfies as entertainment on a grand scale.
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