Gladiator
***.3 GM
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Djimon Hounsou, Oliver Reed, Connie Nielsen, Richard Harris

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It is now firmly established that Russell Crowe kicking ass is a good thing. He kicked ass in "L.A. Confidential" and I've heard that "The Insider" would have been better if he kicked Al Pacino's ass at some point. It's ass-kicking with intelligence behind it that makes this guy so cool - why so many people wanted him to play Wolverine in the X-Men movie.

Now he's Maximus, the bad-ass Roman general that troops love and enemies hate, slaughtering anyone that dares get in the way of the growth of the Empire, but just doing his duty until he's allowed to return home to his family. He kicks so much ass that the Emperor (Richard Harris) likes him better than his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) - but then again, Commodus is such a slimy weasel that nobody really likes him, not even his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). Although the fact that Maximus and Lucilla used to be an item might have something to do with it, too. But when Papa Caesar names Maximus his successor ahead of his own son, Commodus gets a little weepy and kills him before he can make that announcement, then tries to have Max killed. Of course, Mad Maximus survives, but his family gets killed, and he's drawn into slavery and gladiatorial combat while he's mired in vengeful woe and anguish. Then, of course, he becomes the biggest ass-kicking gladiator around, allowing him a chance to get his vengeance.

Ass-Kickin' Crowe is what makes the film really worthwhile. It's what you might call a 'lavish' production, but some of the Phantom-Menacey panoramas of ancient Rome just reach out and smack you in the face as being fake. It fits for a Star Wars movie... but if there's an important scene taking place against that background - it's bad that you're looking for the bluescreen lines instead of listening to the dialog. That goes for some of the fight scenes, too - seems like a flashy stop-motionish combat scene or two was filmed that way to help hide digitized things a little better - or maybe I was sitting too close to the screen.

The performances are all pretty good - the late Oliver Reed as Proximo in particular. Phoenix is effective as the really creepy and amoral Commodus that is trying desperately to be loved by the masses despite his unworthiness... although there is some debate about an incosistency in the character - a friend decried the fact that he figured out a large conspiracy against him and foiled it... but when he could have just had Maximus killed easily, he instead risks his life by taking him on in Gladiatorial combat - even though he stacks the odds against Mad Maximus. He rarely seems like the overconfident sort that would do something like that. One could argue that he was trying to earn what Maximus had - fanatical approval from the masses - by besting him... but the public is fickle, and would probably easily forget Maximus in due time after he fell in battle. Then again, perhaps the conspiracy that involved his beloved sister hurt him so deeply that he wanted to attempt to prove to her and everyone else that he was worthy of his throne... but that's stretching things. It's something very much debatable, but it's not such a boneheaded move that it ruins the rest of the movie completely.

I got a sense that it was trying a little too much to be like "Braveheart" in some respects There were moments when Crowe was speaking that I actually thought it was Mel Gibson in there. While that's not a bad movie to emulate at all... when you've seen it done before, it doesn't quite pack the same emotional impact.

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