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Serious as Hell

Deadly somber Gladiator needs every ounce of earnestness to prevent it from lapsing into parody

Apart from a genuine chuckle culled from the term "vexation," Gladiator takes itself incredibly seriously. This is an admirable effort, as many, many people strove to render this movie important, while the province of parody languished a mere sandal-stride away. Fortunately the performers (a motley lot of incongruous accents) make the most of their predictable trajectory, and there's simply too much talent here to dismiss the movie. Reed is absolutely ideal as Proximo, sincere in his unctuous way, and, most prophetically, he ruminates upon his own demise. Crowe reveals a new turn in the wounded-thug persona he honed in L.A. Confidential, shouldering his heroic responsibilities with immense grace under pressure (you are dared to laugh at the snot on his mustache).

It is a great pleasure to see Jacobi and Harris on the screen again, surrounded by classical trappings. Jacobi instills his Senator Gracchus with a passion for justice, struggling to keep Rome from becoming the lavatory Commodus would have it be. Harris, similarly, gives Aurelius immense dignity, showing him to be brilliant in territorial conquest but lousy at fatherhood, creating the foundation for this entire conflict. Between these elders juts the loose catapult son, credibly delivered by Phoenix. The only shame is that the young actor isn't given more opportunity to provoke our compassion for the power-mad, undisciplined emperor; Gladiator would have been more impressive if it had stepped past its own righteousness and shown more sympathy for its own devil.

Foo fighter: When not leading the Roman army, Maximus (Russell Crowe) fronts an alternative rock band. Or looks like he should.
DreamWorks and Universal Pictures
Foo fighter: When not leading the Roman army, Maximus (Russell Crowe) fronts an alternative rock band. Or looks like he should.

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Rated R.

Still, however rote its paradigm, however obvious its objectives, it's nice to see massive entertainment like this on the big screen. Perhaps, if this makes some money, it will be possible to explore wider stories and more complex themes, rather than the outdated societal models that a movie like this endorses. Why just toss audience natives a few trinkets for their box-office dollars? Surprise and delight us! After all, as Scott himself says, "Entertainment has frequently been used by leaders as a means to distract an abused citizenry." If that's not a call for real heroes to rise, what is?

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