From its opening frames of hand-to-hand butchery and unblinking conflict, Gladiator simply grabs you by the balls and never lets go. This is visceral film-making at its finest, painted on the grandest of canvases, and yet, one which maintains the finest eye for detail. It is, in short, an awesome achievement. Boasting a cast of thousands, remarkable digital effects, and a gripping saga of revenge, its ultimate success nevertheless boils down to the work of two men.
For Ridley Scott, Gladiator is a return to form after spending the better part of a decade wandering in a post-Thelma&Louise wasteland (GI Jane: why, Ridley, why?). Here he takes a genre which was on life support for 40-odd years and pounds it back into glorious existence. True, Scott is little concerned with historical accuracy and will be hammered for the film's multiple transgressions. But like Kubrick's schizophrenic Spartacus - - Gladiator's closest screen relative - - it's also a work which will triumphantly stand the test of time. The atmospherics are so strong that you can almost smell the sweat pouring from the Colosseum as Crowe battles man and beast for the entertainment of the Roman masses.
But, wisely, Scott's chief concern remains mythic storytelling, following Maximus' path from hero, to slave, to gladiator, to de facto revolutionary, a stoic empowered as much by his own inner strength as his skills in the arena. It's the stuff that ignites the Roman world which surrounds him. It's also the stuff from which great movie heroes are born. For all the epic majesty worthy of Cecil B DeMille or David Lean, Scott's greatest accomplishment is simply keeping his camera on Russell Crowe.
In a sense, Crowe is playing the same character that he did so well in both LA Confidential and The Insider: the brooding and indomitable, but reluctant hero. Unlike those previous efforts, however, Gladiator has blockbuster written all over it. If LA Confidential and The Insider heralded the New Zealander's arrival as a leading actor of his generation, Gladiator is his passport to stardom. Oliver Reed also turns in a solid performance in his final role, while Djimon Hounsou, as Maximus' gladiator sidekick, Juba, shows post-Amistad career longevity.
The one and only annoying fly in this ointment is Joaquin Phoenix. Perhaps Phoenix has been short-changed by Gladiator's screenplay, but his hammy `quest for love' is just too much to swallow. Rather than anticipating a showdown between two worthy screen adversaries, you sometimes wonder why Crowe doesn't just put the little emperor over his knee and give him a good spanking. Still, this doesn't detract from what can only be described as a gloriously entertaining thrill-packer of truly epic proportions.