If I were to enter a Colosseum with only a sword as protection against lethally-armed charioteers and tigers on long chains, I’d ask Russel Crowe to go first.
Heroes are making a comeback. This epic drama, as glorious as it is savagely earthy, is a superb vehicle for stalwart actor Crowe. He’s Maximus, a Roman General serving under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). It’s A.D. 180 and the Roman kingdom, with Maximus’s help, stretches from Africa to the borders of North England.
“At my signal, unleash Hell,” instructs Maximus as they enter into battle against Germania. Afterwards, Emperor Aurelius reflects on the 20 years of his rule; only four have seen peace. General Maximus wants to return home to his wife and son whom he hasn’t seen him for almost three years.
This fictional story of men and their wars and of those who serve under them — whether as soldiers or as shackled gladiators — is 2½ hours of nail-biting action scenes, personal and political intrigue. General Maximus is betrayed by Commodus, the Emperor’s 19-year-old son, and presumed dead. He surfaces later in Rome as a slave-turned-gladiator who enthralls thousands of petal-throwing, bloodthirsty spectators. Some of the gladiators fighting with him are from lands that he had conquered.
Connie Nielsen stars as Lucilla, the Emperor’s daughter, who, after her father is murdered, becomes a slave to her brother’s mad whims to protect her son, the next heir. Neither she nor Commodus know that Maximus is a fearless gladiator soon to be called “the savior of Rome” — who waits for revenge on behalf of his Emperor and his family.
Superbly directed and acted (Joaquin Phoenix, Oliver Reed and Djimon Hounsou also star), this movie is about a man with principles who must live within the demanding perimeters of a kill-or-be-killed world. Not as bloody as Braveheart, but just as violent, its characters are complex and compelling, even inspirational. The cinematography (England, Malta and Morocco), like the story, is spectacular.
This is not a movie to write or read about — it’s a movie to be seen.
(Written by C.E. Chambers and published in the “The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition,” Volume 23, Number 1213, May 2, 2000. The photo is from http://www.cinema.com.)