Picks and Pans Review: Gladiator

updated 05/08/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/08/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed

Upon vanquishing yet another enemy on the battlefield, Julius Caesar once famously crowed, " Veni, vidi, vici" ("I came, I saw, I conquered"). The same can now be said for director Ridley Scott, who with Gladiator resurrects and reinvigorates the Roman epic. Moviegoers may not have been pining for such spectacles since speeding chariots last rumbled through theaters in 1959's Ben-Hur and 1960's Spartacus, but the juiced-up Gladiator proves there's still plenty of grappa left in the genre.

Gladiator tells the bloody saga of Maximus (Crowe, in a star-making turn), a fictional warrior whom the movie plops down in 180 A.D. amid real figures from Roman history. Maximus's bravery, brains and decency have earned him the respect and loyalty of his troops and the admiration of Marcus Aurelius (Harris), Rome's ailing emperor. When the emperor tells his preening, power-hungry son Corn-modus (Phoenix) that he intends to name Maximus as his successor and make Rome a republic, Junior goes wonky. Maximus barely escapes with his life and ends up-the film is murky on just how—enslaved and forced onto the provincial gladiator circuit (imagine WWF Smackdown! with swords and massive blood loss).

Despite a thoughtful script that strives to add texture and context, Gladiator in the end is too preposterous (bring on the tigers) to be mistaken for a great movie. But its pull is potent, thanks to the razzle-dazzle fight scenes (the opening battle rivals that in Saving Private Ryan) and a magnetic performance by Crowe (The Insider), who shows just the right combination of heart and brawn. As his nemesis, Phoenix is sulkily amusing, and Nielsen, cast as Phoenix's sister, signals she's an actress to be watched. (R)

Bottom Line: Thumbs-up

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