There are at least two reasons "Gladiator" will probably conquer its competitors in box-office combat. For one, it offers a whopping 150 minutes of nonstop spectacle and violence, and Hollywood has a special genius for marketing those particular commodities. For the other, Russell Crowe was an Oscar contender for his acting in "The Insider," one of last year's very best pictures, and his presence lends a touch of class to what is otherwise, well, a whopping 150 minutes of nonstop spectacle and violence.
But none of this means "Gladiator" is a movie to rush out and see. Ridley Scott's filmmaking is as blunt and bullying as the combat it depicts, crashing from one overheated close-up to another, as if we won't notice a stabbing, slicing, or bludgeoning if it isn't rubbed in our faces.
And while Crowe's acting is certainly more subtle than most of the brouhaha around him, he has little chance to display the affecting humanity that's one of his chief assets.
He plays Maximus, an ancient Roman general who's chosen by the aging Marcus Aurelius to assume his place on the emperor's throne. The ruler's evil son, Commodus, covets this position, though, and it doesn't take long for him to dispatch his illustrious dad and sell Maximus into slavery.
Maximus always thought of himself as a humble sort of guy, but this new lifestyle isn't what he had in mind. He spends the next few reels slaying other gladiators before bellowing Roman crowds, thinking up ways to reduce the carnage among his fellow warriors, and dreaming of revenge against you-know-who.
Hollywood used to thrive on epics like this, especially in the 1950s, when "sword and sandal" sagas filled the increasingly wide screens of theaters eager to compete with television's rising popularity. The genre has since lain fallow, but advance enthusiasm over "Gladiator" suggests that its appeal is as unkillable as both Maximus and Commodus appear to be.
The picture's likely triumph may distress moviegoers who had hoped the studios would wait for summer before releasing their most flamboyant fantasies. Since there's no way to stop the juggernaut, consolation must be sought in a few intermittent virtues - the glimmering intelligence of Crowe's performance and the chance to see a final appearance by Oliver Reed, who completed his portrayal of a gladiator coach shortly before his death.
Younger audiences may also enjoy the occasional bouts of slow-motion mayhem, la Oliver Stone or John Woo, and older viewers can let their minds wander to days of yore when the likes of Victor Mature and Debra Paget would have grappled with the one-dimensional roles. They wouldn't have fared any better with this script than their descendants do, but their surroundings wouldn't have been so bone-crunchingly brutal, either.
* Rated R; contains much violence.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society