Never mind the slew of extras and all that Roman history -- Russell Crowe and all of his "massives" are far more exciting.

Published January 11, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

If "Gladiator" isn't "Spartacus," it's a better and more enjoyable piece of filmmaking than might have been expected from Ridley Scott. Given the director's usual taste for spectacle, and all the scenery -- both real and computer-generated -- on display in this megaproduction, what's most impressive about "Gladiator" is that Scott doesn't lose sight of his actors. "Gladiator" doesn't go very deep as a serious drama about ancient Rome, and it simply ignores the irony (or hypocrisy) of condemning the same blood sports that it uses to charge up the audience. It's basically a mammoth version of the sort of movie that little boys used to grow up watching on Saturday afternoon television except that it doesn't feel juvenile. And the credit is due to the actors.

As Maximus, the Roman general designated as emperor by the aging Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) but sold into slavery after Marcus is killed by his scheming, passed-over son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Russell Crowe could have settled for being merely a beefcake killing machine. Instead he gives a performance that gives weight and dignity to such potentially hoary concepts as honor and bravery. Maximus' longing for his dead wife and child becomes, in Crowe's hands, not merely a sentimental sop to emotion, but something with the depth of a privately tended grief. Crowe may be the only current actor who can play outsize heroism without resorting to parody or posing.

As a slave trader, Oliver Reed (who died shortly before completing his part) engages in a final flourish of his malevolent scenery chewing, and Phoenix prances and hisses in the weak, slightly effeminate manner of noble villains. But as his sister Lucilla, Swedish actress Connie Neilsen gives a performance that makes one feel privy to her very thought processes. And in his 30 minutes of screen time, Harris seizes the part of Marcus Aurelius as if it were his chance to play Lear.

Scott doesn't have the poetry in him to make an epic sing. But his work is clean and professional and in a movie of this size that's a blessing. The battle scenes that open the film have an essential clarity, and some images, like scores of flaming arrows raining down like fiery snowflakes, have a savage lyricism.

The second DVD disc that accompanies the movie is stuffed with production sketches, deleted scenes and several documentaries. The hour-long explication of Roman blood sports seems merely an attempt to give the movie academic respectability (as if we were drawn to "Gladiator" for a history lesson) and the documentary on composer Hans Zimmer is of interest mainly if you're enamored of his work. Next question.

The obligatory making-of featurette has some goodies. I was less interested in the demonstrations of how the scope of Rome and the roaring crowds at the Coliseum were done with matte shots than with the goofiness of Crowe. He talks about how the producers were afraid he'd hurt himself playing in a soccer match he organized but were perfectly willing to let him perform inches away from four chained and snapping Bengal tigers. But the best moment is an offhand wiseass comment that suggests Crowe might just have a future as a movie critic. He describes the film as "opening with a massive battle scene before moving on to a series of massive battle scenes which set the stage for a massive battle scene resulting in a final battle scene which I would describe as massive." In "Gladiator" it's his massive talent that makes the most impact. He makes size matter.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------