Special effects in movies have become increasingly wedded to science fiction, but in the glorious spectacle "Gladiator," director Ridley Scott uses this technology to re-create -- with a startling physicality and immediacy -- the Roman Empire that once blanketed most of Europe.
Scott, who helped establish our current sci-fi lexicon with "Alien" and "Blade Runner," has always been an expert at using high-tech tools for low-tech visceral impact. The battle scenes that open "Gladiator," which depict the Roman general Maximus (a perfect Russell Crowe) leading his adroit army against a defiant band of holdouts in Germania, are intense and bloody displays of combat in the pre-firearms era. The violence is intimate and relentless, ending only in the vanquishing of rivals -- and that, in a nutshell, is the paradigm played out among gladiators.
As a general, Maximus is both a respected battlefield strategist and a warrior who's unafraid to enter the fray. But he's woefully unprepared when it comes to politics. So when the petulant and needy Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the son of the dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), stages a coup, Maximus is stripped of everything that means anything to him. A shell of his former self, with only his ability to kill keeping him alive, he becomes one of the star attractions of gladiator games run by Proximo (the formidable Oliver Reed).
David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson incorporate a lot into their smart script: the conflict between democracy and totalitarianism (which Scott emphasizes by staging Commodus' return to Rome as a Leni Riefenstahl-style celebration of goose-stepping, absolute power); the idea that sports -- particularly the hollow loyalties and ritualization of winning -- distract societies from their collective misery; and the fact that a woman, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), might have made a better emperor than her younger brother.
Even though the film carries a strong whiff of machismo, the battle between Maximus and Commodus isn't merely a contest to see who deserves the title Biggus Dickus. It's about honor and fidelity to the ideals expressed in the founding of the empire, not the corrupt society that grew overly enamored with triumph and the ability to dominate the world. That vision makes "Gladiator" relevant to a far wider world than that of ancient Rome.