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Gladiator Kicks Butt

MORE than just a welcome revival of the toga movie – a genre dead for more than 30 years, if you don’t count Bob Guccione’s gamy “Caligula” – “Gladiator” is an exhilarating, sweeping epic that begs to be seen on the largest possible screen.

At times it’s surprisingly languorous for a modern actioner. But it also boasts some of the most exciting pre-gunpowder combat sequences ever: Not only are the battles in “Gladiator” superior to – and more realistic than – anything in “Braveheart,” they’re equal in excitement to the classic arena contests in “Ben Hur” and “Spartacus.”

They’re so gripping, in fact, that they’re disturbing: Long before the final duel, you find yourself cheering as wildly as the bloodthirsty Colosseum crowd.

Directed by Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Blade Runner”), “Gladiator” also features breathtaking photography, sets and computer-generated images.

But the real glory of the movie is Russell Crowe, who is simply magnificent as a mythical Roman general turned gladiator. Like James Mason, he is one of those actors who can make the lamest line (and like its sword-and-sandal predecessors, “Gladiator” has some clunkers) sound like Shakespeare.

“Gladiator” opens on the empire’s wintry, forested northern frontier, with Maximus (Crowe) leading his legions against the ferocious German hordes. In a stunning battle sequence, clearly influenced by “Saving Private Ryan,” Maximus routs the last threat to Rome’s domination of Europe, as the ailing Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) looks on.

The emperor offers him supreme power; Maximus says he would rather retire to his farm in Spain. But before he can make up his mind, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) the emperor’s son, who is visiting the front with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), murders Aurelius and assumes the purple.

Commodus immediately arranges to have Maximus killed. The general escapes this fate but finds disaster at home before being captured by slave traders. Taken to North Africa, Maximus is sold to the gladiatorial impresario Proximo (the late Oliver Reed, as rascally and charming as ever in his final role).

Initially reluctant to fight, Maximus proves to be an extraordinarily deadly gladiator. Accordingly, Proximo brings him to Rome to compete in games sponsored by the sports-mad Commodus.

“Gladiator” draws heavily on its ’60s ancestors, but unlike them it contains no Christian message, and, more surprisingly, no sex.

Scott fills the movie with visual allusions to his own work as well as to “Spartacus” and even “Apocalypse Now.” There are also some arty indulgences, including Maximus’ bleached-out visions of his own death, shots of speeded-up clouds scudding over the desert, and black-and-white parade scenes that are clearly intended to evoke both Nazi-era Berlin and “Triumph of the Will.”

However, there are no silly anachronisms – apart from an attempt to give the drama a modern political dimension. Periodically the characters spout historical absurdities about “a dream that was Rome” and “giving power back to the people” as if screenwriters David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson were recycling Princess Leia’s lines from “Star Wars.”

Ancient-history buffs might also quarrel with military details. The Romans didn’t use artillery except in sieges, for example, and employed their swords for stabbing, not slashing. Nor could they engage in cavalry charges, because the stirrup hadn’t yet made it to Europe.

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GLADIATOR  31/2

Ridley Scott’s revival of the sword-and-sandal epic is a spectacular triumph, with sensational battle scenes and a terrific performance by Russell Crowe. First-class entertainment, it’s marred only by slow sections, occasionally leaden dialogue and some indulgently arty dream sequences. Running Time: 150 minutes. Rated R. At the Lincoln Square, the Ziegfeld, the Kips Bay, others.

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