Thumbs up for a tale of blood, sweat and spears

Gladiator (15) | Director: Ridley Scott | Starring: Russell Crowe,Joaquin Pheonix, Richard Harris, Connie Nielsen; 150 mins
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The Independent Culture

The Big Picture

Just when it seemed that they don't - and would never again - make them like they used to, along comes Gladiator to pick up the torch once held by Spartacus and Ben-Hur and thus make Bank Holiday afternoon television safe for years to come. Ridley Scott's Roman epic swaggers on to the screen as majestically as any emperor's victory parade, holding clichés aloft like regimental colours yet daring us not to take it all with absolute seriousness. The past few weeks have seen movies inviting us to smirk at their in-jokes and allusions to other movies, a dispiriting nouvelle irony whose only purpose is to flatter our knowingness. Gladiator is locked squarely within a generic tradition, but it's confident enough to play it straight - the nudge and the wink have been shunned, and you feel like cheering.

It gets off to a quite blistering start. The year is AD180, and the Roman Empire is about to breach a new frontier. On one side of a wooded valley in darkest Germania a hirsute horde of barbarians jostle in anticipation of a mighty scrap; on the other, the top Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) makes a final inspection of his legions before telling his second-in-command: "At my signal, unleash hell." Cue a cavalry charge down the slope and into the roaring fray, while overhead, flaming arrows pinprick the gloom like Whistler's fireworks over the Thames.

From a distance the sight is eerily beautiful; up close it's anything but, a maelstrom of blood and guts and mud which bring to mind the savage close-quarters hacking and hewing of Braveheart (take a bow, Nicholas Powell, who choreographed the battle scenes of both films). The film has more inventive savagery in store, but in terms of scale and intensity it has nothing more breathtaking.

Hoping that his battlefield heroics have earned him some R&R, Maximus is rather taken aback when the ailing Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris, looking slightly older than Methuselah) asks him to be his successor. This news doesn't best please Marcus's son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who promptly gives the old man a final shove towards the grave, grabs the imperial laurels for himself and sends Maximus off to be executed.

As readers of Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire will know, the rule of the Emperor Commodus became a byword for corruption and depravity, so you can expect the worst. Maximus escapes death, only to find, on returning home, his wife and child slaughtered. As if that weren't horrible enough, he is then sold into slavery and set to work as a gladiator by Oliver Reed. Reed, playing a kind of prototype Don King, is pretty good in his last role (he died while the film was on location in Malta) and gets a memorable first line as he trades with another dealer: "You sold me queer giraffes - I want my money back."

Once the scene switches to Rome, Scott and his team really hit their stride, pumping up the action and spraying the blood around. Maximus, having paid his dues in the lower divisions, is now ready for Premier League combat - indeed, such is his gladiatorial renown you almost expect a sponsor's logo across his breastplate - yet even he looks slightly overwhelmed by the towering dimensions of the Colosseum. Computer graphic imagery has recreated this monstrous splendour, and however closely you look for the joins as the camera pans around, the architecture seems rock-solid.

So too the set-piece fights in the arena, which pack an extraordinary visceral thrill and are accompanied by a delirium that sounds like the Nou Camp at kick-off. The violence is as sanguinary and shocking as any in recent cinema - Saving Private Ryan is the last time I recall taking cover - but this time one's responses to it are disturbingly skewed. Watching so much gore being spilt while the crowd roars its approval, you're aghast at the idea that this was the mob's entertainment; yet your feelings of moral superiority are immediately undermined by the brute realisation that, hell, this rocks.

Ever seen a Nubian archeress sliced in two? Ever seen a twin-fisted sword trick that takes a man's head clean off his shoulders? It's a blast, I promise you.

It helps that Russell Crowe is the man wielding the big sword. Stocky and stubbled, eyes alert beneath his hooded brow, he presents a welcome change from the pneumatic superhero of recent tradition. If it were Jean-Claude Van Damme or Sylvester Stallone striding out to do battle, you'd sigh and wait for the foe to be pulverised. Crowe, however, looks properly mortal, and when he squares up to an opponent who has more iron on his flanks than a panzer, you actually fear for him. It's about as different from his performance in The Insider as it's possible to get, but it's not much less enjoyable.

When Gladiator strays from the combat zone, one feels a distinct drop in energy. The final hour is a dark imbroglio of plotting and counterplotting, the pivot being Rome's future: can loony tyrant Commodus be stopped and the republic be restored? Even if he can, one tends to agree with the terse analysis of the emperor's sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen): "Rome is the mob." The screenplay (by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson) has tried to weld a political overview on to a revenge tragedy, but its awkwardness hardly matters. The thrill of Gladiator, I'm bound to admit, is in the flash of steel and the great spurting geysers of blood.