Gladiator” is a movie of such astounding scope and sweep and such masterful story-telling that it makes its storyline seem classic rather than clichéd. Breathtakingly sumptuous visuals credibly re-create the world of Rome in 180 AD, a world of unimaginable reach and power. The aging Caesar (Richard Harris) watches as Maximus (Russell Crowe), his most trusted general, fights the barbarians in Germania. His motto is “strength and honor.” He tells his men, “At my signal, unleash hell!” and leads them through a terrible battle to triumph. And the battle is terrible, an ancient version of the opening of “Saving Private Ryan,” with burning, bleeding, stabbing, smacking, and just plain carnage wherever you look.
Caesar’s son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) wants to succeed his father. But his father says no. Commodus does not have the virtues that Caesar wants: wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Commodus says that he has other virtues: ambition, resourcefulness, courage, and devotion. Caesar tells Maximus he wants him to lead the people back to democracy. But before he can send that message back to the senate, he is killed by Commodus, showing his ambition and resourcefulness, if not his courage and devotion. Commodus orders that Maximus and his family be killed.
Maximus escapes, is captured, and sold into slavery. He becomes a gladiator. He knows that if he wants to confront Commodus, he has to become successful enough to be called to Rome. Meanwhile, Commodus is using festivals and spectacles to distract the populace while he disables the Senate. The only one he trusts is his sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), who pretends to support him to protect her young son.
Director Ridley Scott (“Thelma and Louise,” “Blade Runner”) stages the fight scenes brilliantly, each more inventive and gripping than the last. He must identify with Proximo (Oliver Reed), the owner of the gladiators, who tells Maximus that it is not the opponent he must conquer, but the crowd. He advises Maximus to kill his opponents in a more elaborate and interesting way. Proximo is always looking for something new to engage the attention of the audience, and the results are something like a deranged computer game, with new peril coming literally from all sides.
Fellow gladiator Juba (“Amistad’s” Djimon Hounsou) explains the appeal of the fights when he says that fear and wonder are a powerful combination. Two thousand years later, little has changed. We may not pay to see people kill each other any more, but we pay to see them pretend to do so (in this movie, for example, which elicited applause and hoarse cheers from the audience in its bloodiest moments), and we pay to see them come pretty close in sports like boxing, hockey, wrestling, and football.
Parents should know that this is a very, very violent movie. A woman and child are brutally tortured and killed (mostly off-screen). People are sliced up, burned, and crucified. There are references to rape and incest.
Families who see the movie will want to talk about why it is that people are drawn to watch other people battle and what the appeal is of movies like this and full contact sports. Notice that, like Odysseus in the land of the Cyclops, Maximus will not use his name until he has done something he can be proud of. Why didn’t Commodus just have him killed? Why did Commodus (a little like the WWF’s Vince McMahon) decide to participate in the combat? What does it mean to “smile back” at death? Compare the lists of virtues claimed by Caesar and Commodus. Which are the most important? One of the movie’s great challenges is making its world seem very different to us without making it impossible to identify with the characters. The story is told without any sense of irony or distance. Some older kids will have some good thoughts on how that is accomplished. Families who enjoy this movie may want to see some of the other classics set in this era, like “Ben Hur” and “Spartacus.