Gladiator, well cast and impressively staged, is every inch the summer blockbuster it intends to be. It's also something more. Amid the action and intrigue, director Scott makes a few points about blockbuster-style entertainment.
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.
For those old enough to remember the 70mm epics of yesteryear, this is a nostalgic synthesis of all of them. For those who haven't seen those earlier movies, Scott will open their eyes to a "brand-new" old world.
Gladiator is filled with brilliant filmmaking and features outstanding performances, but it's neither profound enough nor pop enough to be great -- it's mournful, serious, beautiful and, finally, pointless.
Ridley Scott thrusts us so close to the combat that all we see is a lot of whirling and thrashing, a sword thrust here and there, a spurt of blood, a limb severed. There's hardly a scene that is cleanly and coherently staged in open space.
The fusion of the ancient and the modern -- even to the point of some sly echoes of our own sports-mad society -- is seamless. Gladiator does indeed deliver the glory that was Rome, but it also clinically dissects the assumptions on which it was built.
Russell Crowe is as believable a Spaniard here as Charlton Heston was a Mexican in "Touch of Evil." But director Ridley Scott took greater interest in entwining an empire's intrigue with its people's turmoil than emphasizing bread-and-circus brutality.