Gladiator

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When you hear a movie is 2 1/2 hours long, you tend to wonder if maybe something could be cut from it. Seems like most films that go more than 2 hours tend to wander at some point.

Not “Gladiator.” “Gladiator” is so tightly written (by David H. Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson), and so efficiently directed (by Ridley Scott), that not one of its 154 minutes seems excessive, padded or unnecessary.

In fact, the film is so enthralling — so gosh-darned ENTERTAINING, to use an old-fashioned, non-film-critic word — that 2 1/2 hours seems like nothing. It’s a classic-style epic story of heroism, loyalty and bravery, with Russell Crowe delivering a stand-up-and-cheer performance that will finally get him the mass-audience attention he deserves.

In A.D. 180, Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris, outstanding in his limited screen time) is frustrated at how corrupt the Roman Empire has become. His dying wish is to take the power from the filthy senate and give it back to the people.

He asks his top general, Maximus (Crowe), whose leadership and fighting skills have expanded the Empire as far north as Germany, to succeed him, but Maximus declines, desiring to return to his wife and son in civilian life.

Before Marcus can express this desire to anyone, though, his reptile-skinned crybaby of a son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), kills him and assumes power as the natural heir. Knowing of his father’s love for Maximus, he has his family killed and attempts to kill Maximus, too. But Maximus escapes and winds up a slave, then a gladiator.

Eventually, his traveling troupe of gladiators — men who fight the “home team” in arenas, to the death, for the amusement of the masses — winds up in Rome, where Commodus sees him in action and must face up to the fact that 1) he’s still alive, and 2) the people love him.

The film is visually arresting, with some battle scenes shot with a slow-crank camera, making them look sped-up even though they’re not. The battle scenes, of which there are many, feature an extraordinary number of people being run through with swords, though the blood and dismemberment do not seem excessive or gratuitous (it’s no “Saving Private Ryan,” or even “Braveheart”). The scenes are certainly tense and exciting, though.

More important are the great performances from Crowe and Phoenix. Crowe carries the film on his shoulders, proving to be as courageous and admirable an action hero as we’ve seen in some time, giving much-needed dignity to the term “action hero.” And Phoenix is cowardly as the power-hungry Commodus, a sort of Shakespearean embodiment of evil, yet there’s something sympathetic in his desperate, childish grabs at authority.

Maximus’s journey from general to slave to gladiator to hero makes for a wonderfully moving film. Action movies and gladiator movies have not garnered much respect before, but “Gladiator’s” depth and humanity make the whole thing seem legit.

A (; R, abundant violence -- mostly hand-to-hand combat -- brief but creepy sexuality, and very mild profanity.)

In 2011, I reconsidered this movie for my "Re-Views" column at Film.com.

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