Air Maximus. The name of Nike's newest shoe? No, the handles of the respective heroes of two films, Michael Jordan to the Max and Gladiator, each opening on Friday. One is a sports documentary. The other is a gladiator movie. Which is which? Who can say? There are myriad similarities.
?Dreamlike opening sequence. Jordan: Air soars to dunk in an otherwise vacant United Center. Gladiator: Maximus ( Russell Crowe) walks alone through a field—Elysium, perhaps?
?Death of father figure sends hero into exile. Jordan: Air, three-time NBA Finals MVP with the Bulls, abruptly retires from basketball after his father, James, is murdered. He makes a career switch and winds up in Birmingham as a minor league baseball player. Gladiator: Maximus, the most decorated general in the Roman Empire, flees from Germania after Emperor Marcus Aurelius ( Richard Harris), who earlier had told him, "You are the son that I should have had," dies under mysterious circumstances. Maximus makes a career switch and winds up in the backwater city of Zucchabar as a gladiator.
?Pregame cameo by person wearing a bull head. Self-explanatory.
?Gray beard Zen master helps our hero ascend to next level. Jordan: Former player Phil Jackson becomes the coach in Chicago and advises Air to "live in the moment" through meditation. Gladiator: Proximo (Oliver Reed), who as Maximus's slave master initially comes off as ruthlessly Reinsdorfian, later reveals that he's a former gladiator and can help Maximus win his freedom. "You're good," Proximo tells his charge, "but you could be magnificent."
?Feckless foes fall early in the playoffs. Jordan: Air dominates as the Bulls sweep the Nets and beat the Hornets 4-1 in the first two rounds of the 1998 NBA playoffs. Gladiator: In preludes to the final match at the Colosseum, Maximus and his supporting cast annihilate opponents.
?Mars. Jordan: Blackmon, who pays Air homage. Gladiator: Roman god of war, to whom Maximus and his soldiers pay homage.
?Adoration by children. Jordan: Kids in Gatorade ad sing, "I wanna be, wanna be like Mike!" Gladiator: "Are you the one they call the Spaniard?" Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark), nephew of newly installed Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), asks Maximus. "My mother says that I should imitate you."
?Heroic comeback. Jordan: Air rejoins the Bulls late in the 1994-95 season and goes on to win three more NBA titles. Gladiator: Maximus, buoyed by his success in the arena, entertains a plot to reassume command of his army and seize Rome from Commodus.
?Climactic, spine-tingling match against Western Conference nemesis. Jordan: Air must defeat Utah. Gladiator: Crowe must defeat Phoenix.