To play the role of Maximus, a Roman general turned gladiator in Ridley Scott's $103 million epic "Gladiator," Russell Crowe first had to lose the 38 pounds he'd put on to play tobacco- industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand in "The Insider." "I didn't want to create a contemporary gym body," Crowe says, his deep, rich, echo-chamber Aussie voice enriched by Marlboros. "I wanted him to have a bit of the beast about him."
There are those who would say there is always a bit of the beast inside this complex, 36-year-old, New Zealand-born actor. Certainly you can see it in many of the characters he has played: the angry mule inside Wigand's pale, portly frame; the raging bull inside cop Bud White in "L.A. Confidential"; the wild animal that was the racist skinhead in the 1992 "Romper Stomper." These are performances that emerge from some deep, primal place. Yet this is the same man who convincingly played a sweet dishwasher in "Proof" and a sensitive gay son in "The Sum of Us." In "Gladiator," he radiates an un-self-conscious, dyed-in-the wool masculinity that seems to belong to another era. Is there an American actor Crowe's age who would look at home in a sword-and-sandal epic? Johnny Depp? John Cusack? Sean Penn? Don't think so.
For a director, working with Crowe can be like lion-taming. He is a man who reflexively snarls at strangers. "It was challenge, challenge, challenge," recalls "L.A. Confidential" director Curtis Hanson. "He literally challenged every word of every line. He's looking to see if you'll stand up to him, if he can shake you. But once I had his trust, I had it completely. He would have walked across the Hollywood Freeway if I'd asked him."
I get a taste of the Crowe Treatment in Los Angeles two days after the Oscars. The first thing he does is growl: "Thanks for ruining my f---ing life, mate." He has stayed on an extra day to talk to me, postponing his flight to Ecuador, where he's shooting the kidnap drama "Proof of Life" with Meg Ryan, and he lets me know what hassles this has created. But the flash of teeth is a bluff; having marked his territory, he turns on the gruff Down Under charm.
On "Gladiator," one of his fights with director Scott was about the accent he would use as Maximus, the fictional general who vows revenge on Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the historical, very depraved Roman emperor who has slain Maximus's wife and child, and thinks he's killed his rival for the throne, Maximus himself. The hero is Spanish, so Crowe wanted to play him sounding like "Antonio Banderas with better elocution." As with most of his arguments, he lost, adapting instead a voice he calls "Royal Shakespeare Company two pints after lunch."
Whatever it is, the audience has no trouble believing that they're watching the most accomplished gladiator in the Roman empire. And Ridley Scott, in his best movie since "Thelma and Louise," takes a genre that had been left for dead almost 35 years ago and breathes beautiful and brutal new life into it. Ranging from the German forests, where we first see Maximus leading the army of Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) into battle; to Morocco, where the general, stripped of his status and sold into slavery, is trained to be a gladiator; to the bloody Colosseum of Rome, the grave, elegant "Gladiator" is a spectacular undertaking. Maximus's story is pure fiction, but the teeming cutthroat world Scott creates feels right. Phoenix's daring performance as the creepy, sadistic, patricidal son of Marcus Aurelius--who harbors incestuous desires for his regal sister (Connie Nielsen)--reveals a range one had never expected.
Both spacious and intimate, "Gladiator" delivers dazzling production designs by Arthur Max, savage fight scenes that thrill and sicken (turning us into that bloodthirsty Roman crowd) and a genuine larger-than-life hero. Crowe is the rock around which this huge, stylish production is built; without his blunt conviction it could all have rung very false.
After he finishes shooting in Ecuador, the unmarried, tireless Crowe (22 films since 1990) is going to make a movie directed by Jodie Foster. Called "Flora Plum," it is set in a Depression-era circus. "I play a beast in a freak show," Crowe explains, taking a deep drag on his cigarette. "Which I think is rather appropriate." David Ansen
Unless there's an ice age in the next couple of weeks, Disney's computer-animated epic will be a thundering hit. Our hero is a talking Iguanodon named Aladar. Little Aladar spends his youth palling around with lemurs, but then, as the apocalyptic meteors start crashing down, he leads a pack of dinosaurs to a safe nesting ground. The movie combines the computer-generated dinosaurs with live-action backgrounds shot all over the world and then digitally enhanced. Disney reportedly spent $200 million on the sometimes scary adventure, but it will wind up with a new animation studio and a blockbuster.
Dreamworks' ode to American booty. Four college guys drive from New York to Texas in a bus stolen from a school for the blind, pausing to perpetrate hijinks and learn important lessons about T & A. "Road Trip," which stars Tom Green and the guy who played Stifler in "American Pie" (Seann William Scott), should be one for the ages--the ages 13 to 21, to be exact.
"Mission: Impossible," part deux. The plot? Come on--we're still trying to figure out the plot of the first one. Rumor has it that Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames are trying to stop Anthony Hopkins from letting loose a lethal virus. The cool, "Matrix"-influenced trailer--and the presence of the revered action director John Woo--should make "M: I-2" an instant blockbuster, despite the usual reports of trouble on the set.
Only Jackie Chan would pick a fight with Tom Cruise. "Noon," which opens the same weekend as "M: I-2," is a Western spoof that finds the martial-arts master and his partner (Owen Wilson) trying to rescue a Chinese princess (Lucy Liu). The movie must work--they're already writing a sequel.
Gone in 60 Seconds
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is famous for preposterously entertaining--and, often, just plain preposterous--big bangs like "Armageddon" and "Con Air." This time around, Nicolas Cage plays a legendary car thief named Randall (Memphis) Raines. In order to save his brother (Giovanni Ribisi), Raines must come out of retirement, assemble a team of thieves--including Angelina Jolie--and heist 50 cars before it's too late.
A claymation comedy about five chickens trying to fly the coop before they get the ax--and about the circus chicken (voiced by Mel Gibson) who aids them in their fight for freedom. Early audiences love the movie, which was made by the Oscar-winning team behind the "Wallace & Gromit" shorts.
Me, Myself & Irene
It stars Jim Carrey. It is directed by the brothers Farrelly ("Dumb and Dumber," "There's Something About Mary"). Right off we know it's not a costume drama. Charlie (Carrey) is a Rhode Island cop whose new wife leaves him for a black, midget chauffeur. Charlie later snaps, developing a maniacal second personality named Hank. Soon Charlie and Hank are fighting for the same woman (Renee Zellweger). Advance footage looks insane, disgusting--and fabulous.
You say you want a Revolution. Mel Gibson tries sitting out the War for Independence because he's a widower with seven kids to raise. Then the Redcoats kill one of his boys, and he goes psycho with a hatchet. Director Roland Emmerich has an uneven record ("ID4," "Godzilla"), but advance footage of "Patriot" looks pretty great, full of adrenaline with just the right touch of schmaltz.
The Perfect Storm
Fishermen fighting a losing battle with the sea--and possibly with "The Patriot," which opens the same day. "Storm" is based on the best-selling book, and it boasts a should-be superstar (George Clooney) and a first-rate action director (Wolfgang Petersen, of "Air Force One"). Still, the movie reportedly cost more than $120 million. To make that kind of money back, it's really going to have to catch a wave.
The Marvel Comics franchise about genetically mutated men and women who become superheroes is worshiped so fervently that some fans are already nervous that the movie won't have enough action--or spandex. But Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") is a wily director, and the cast looks ready to rumble. Patrick Stewart plays Prof. Charles Xavier, who wants the X-Men to help humanity. Ian McKellen plays the evil Magneto, who's more interested in a hostile takeover.
Amy Heckerling, who wrote and directed the fabulous high-school confection "Clueless," packs her bags for college. Paul (Jason Biggs) is a geeky NYU student with annoying stoner roommates and only one real friend--a girl named Dora (Mena Suvari), who's flat broke and sleeping with a professor (Greg Kinnear).
What Lies Beneath
A twisty, supernatural thriller about a professor (Harrison Ford), his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and a dead grad student (Amber Valletta) who comes to call. Expectations are high because of the cast and the director, Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump").
The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps
The professor (Eddie Murphy) was a big, fat hit the first time. Now he has a new fiancee (Janet Jackson) and a new serum, but he's still being stalked by Buddy Love (Murphy) and traumatized by the whole Klump klan (Murphy, Murphy, Murphy, Murphy).
The Legend of Bagger Vance
Robert Redford directs distinctly nonordinary people: Matt Damon, Will Smith, Charlize Theron. The movie's set in 1931, in Georgia, and concerns a fallen war hero (Damon) who's competing in a golf tournament. His secret weapon is a mystical caddie named Bagger Vance (Smith), who knows the secret of a perfect swing.
Cecil B. DeMented
John Waters's latest lunacy. Cecil (Stephen Dorff) is a director/cult leader who's convinced that the Hollywood studio system is evil, so he kidnaps a Hollywood star (Melanie Griffith) and forces her to act in his Super-8 creation.
A Latina high-schooler in New York (Michelle Rodriguez) takes up boxing as therapy for her bruising childhood. Soon she falls for another boxer (Santiago Douglas). He's down with the empowerment thing--until he has to get into the ring with her. Karyn Kusama won best director at Sundance and sold her movie for $2.5 million to Sony's Screen Gems.
A comedy spun out of the 1987 NFL players' strike, when scabs filling in for the Washington Redskins won three straight games. Warner Bros. signed Keanu Reeves up to play the gun-shy quarterback Shane Falco back when it noticed that advance audiences were going mental over "The Matrix." Reeves's new movie--like the summer itself--feels like a winner. Jeff Giles