Despite the frequent and graphic displays of dismemberment and decapitation, "Gladiator" is an unabashedly old-fashioned saga, bearing a particularly noteworthy resemblance to both Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus" and William Wyler's legendary "Ben Hur." The story begins during the Germanic campaigns of the aging Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) who, after a bloody, hard-fought victory over barbarian hordes, confides in his young General Maximus (Russell Crowe) that he will not allow his megalomaniac son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) to succeed him, instead granting his authority to Maximus preparatory to returning power to the senate. Commodus, however, has other plans, first murdering his father and then arranging to have Maximus and his family executed. But Maximus escapes the plot, only to be rescued and enslaved in a traveling gladiatorial troupe, owned and managed by an ex-gladiator named Proximo (Oliver Reed). Ironically, what at first appears to be an unspeakably bleak predicament soon manifests a silver lining. Commodus has reversed his father's edict banning the games from Rome, all but guaranteeing Maximus an appointment with the new emperor in the Colosseum...if he can survive long enough to get there.
It is to the credit of Scott and the film's screenwriters--including David Franzoni, John Logan and the great William Nicholson--that "Gladiator" does justice to its predecessors, while also redefining and refining the genre for modern audiences. As often as not, in fact, the film sways toward the gentler, more poetic sensibilities of a European art film, an introspective summer blockbuster that somehow manages to reconcile what should rightfully be irreconcilable sensibilities.
Precisely where to lay credit is a dicier affair. Literate writing, commanding direction, awe-inspiring production design (by Arthur Max), eye-popping photography (by John Mathieson), breathtaking music (by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard) and superlative acting all contribute to the staggeringly convincing recreation of the era. While Crowe's charismatic Maximus and Phoenix's complex Commodus form the film's primary dramatic axis, it is Connie Nielsen ("Mission to Mars") who stands at the center of that axis as Commodus' sister, Lucilla. Possibly the first truly proactive female lead the genre has seen since Anne Baxter in "The Ten Commandments," the Danish-born Nielsen here establishes herself as much more than a pretty face--an actress of great depth, subtlety and power.
Supporting performances by stage-trained Shakespearean legends like Reed, Harris and the great Derek Jacobi merely shore up the overall achievement, confirming, for once, that aiming high need not mean missing the target. Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Neilsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Richard Harris and Djimon Hounsou. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by David Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson. Produced by Douglas Wick, Branko Lustig and David Franzoni. A DreamWorks release. Historical epic. Rated R for intense graphic combat. Running time: 155 min