(2000) ★★★★

ITV1: Friday 17 July, 10.40pm

Charged with the protection of Rome by dying emperor Marcus Aurelius, army general Russell Crowe is reduced to slavery after the treacherous intervention of the emperor’s son, Commodus, who crucifies the soldier’s wife and young son. Sold to a gladiator school, Crowe vows vengeance on the man who has ruined his life. Ridley Scott’s extravagant recreation of the Roman epics unseen since Spartacus and The Fall of the Roman Empire in the early 1960s relies as much on flesh-and-blood characters as on flashy effects. The casting is crucial: Crowe’s Maximus is the thinking man’s action hero, a moral integrity clearly at work behind the masculine physicality. He’s well matched by Joaquin Phoenix’s scheming Commodus, a weak and insecure tyrant who craves approval. “Am I not merciful?”  he screams at his sister, after laying out a dismal future for her and her young son. Connie Nielsen is understandably inscrutable as the sister, Lucilla, terrified of giving away her true feelings to her mad brother. Two old hands give depth and warmth to major supporting roles: Richard Harris whispers wearily as the wise but fallible Marcus Aurelius while, in his final film role, Oliver Reed as Proximo seems every inch a proud old warrior fallen on hard times. Opening with a snow-flecked battle in the woodlands of Germania and progressing through several set-pieces staged imposingly in the Colosseum, Gladiator is at heart a visceral movie experience. A shame, then, that the digital effects are so clearly deployed in the highly touted fight scenes. Scott doesn’t rely just on judicious cutting to tone down the blood and violence (a lot is left to the imagination). He also tinkers with the visuals to disorientating effect, taking you out of the film at the very moments you should be immersed in it. Perhaps he imagined he was giving the combat scenes the kind of stylised ferocity that gave terrifying immediacy to the Normandy beach landings in Saving Private Ryan. The effect is quite the opposite, closer in spirit to the computerised trickery of The Matrix. The music by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard is mightily impressive, although the trailer used Basil Poledouris’ imposing music from Conan the Barbarian. Another indication, perhaps, of being unsure how far to go in terms of depicting violence on screen. Still, it’s an exhilarating movie and one that carries vibrant echoes. Of the past – the Roman architecture clearly illustrates where Albert Speer got his insanely grandiose ideas for the Third Reich. And of the present – the Colosseum crowd scenes are irresistibly redolent of the baying of the mob at football matches, down to the subjective view from a Roman senator’s ‘executive’ box. Perhaps the young men who go on the rampage throughout Europe imagine they are the new gladiators. Or the barbarians.

Certificate: 15

Duration: 150min

Other Showings Time & Date
Sky Movies Greats Thursday, 23 July at 11:45AM
Sky Movies Greats Thursday, 23 July at 8:00PM