Gladiator (15)

Review by Jack Foley

DVD FEATURES: Commentary with Director Ridley Scott, the Director of Photography and the Editor; Making of Gladiator: HBO First Look (25 mins); Deleted Scenes with optional Director's Commentary; Gladiator Games - Roman Blood Sport: Learning Channel Special (50 mins); Hans Zimmer Profile - The Making of the Music for Gladiator; Pietro's Treasure Chest: Best of Deleted Footage Montage; Spencer Treat Clark (Lucius) Production Journal; Original Storyboard Comparisons & Conceptual Art

HAVING once ruled most of the Earth, there was also a time when the Romans ruled Hollywood - providing the inspiration for countless blockbusters such as Spartacus, Ben Hur and The Fall of the Roman Empire. But, as with most genres, the days of Roman rule came to an end, being replaced by the likes of the Western or the space adventure. Now, though, the might of the Caesars has been revived for this awe-inspiring, gut wrenching epic from British director Ridley Scott, starring Oscar nominee Russell Crowe and the late Oliver Reed.

Gladiator is, without doubt, a fantastic movie; one which owes much of its inspiration to the likes of Spartacus but which capitalises on the advances in special effects to deliver a vision of Rome which was as rich in fashion and architecture as it was barbaric and blood-thirsty.

Crowe is Maximus, a successful and highly respected General who has just secured another impressive victory on the battlefield. With the war won, he yearns to return home to his wife and child until being asked by the dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (a nice turn by Richard Harris) to assume the mantle of power.Jealous of Maximus' favour with the Emperor, Aurelius's son - the scheming Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) - learns of the plan and orders his execution - and that of his family - forcing Maximus into a life of slavery after only just escaping with his life.

Betrayed and broken, Maximus trains as a gladiator, under the watchful gaze of Reed's slave-dealer Proximo, until the time is right for him to return to Rome and avenge the murder of his loved ones by killing the new Emperor. While certainly boasting some electrifying set pieces - the scenes within the Colosseum are particularly impressive - Gladiator scores highly by delivering a riveting story which in no way betrays the memory of previous epics.

Rome is perfectly depicted as an Empire rife with corruption, debauchery and betrayal; the centre-piece of which was the Colosseum, an architecturally stunning arena which was home to some unspeakably savage acts of brutality.

As Commodus, Phoenix embodies all that was bad about the period, revelling in a role which requires him to be a merciless tyrant whose incestuous love for his widowed sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), only fuels his hatred of Maximus, a former lover of his sibling.

Nielsen also excels as one of life's survivors, terrified by the murderous impulses of her power-hungry brother, yet calm and controlled enough to take charge of some difficult decisions. The presence of Harris, Reed (this is a fitting way to have bowed out) and Derek Jacobi further serves to underline the fact this is far from an endless series of action sequences, thereby enabling Crowe - fresh from his Oscar nomination - the chance to build on his reputation as a star to watch.

If there are criticisms - Crowe's Maximus may be a little to earnest at a time when audiences are used to slightly more chequered heroes, while the action is nowhere near as gory as Braveheart - these are but minor quibbles, for Gladiator certainly puts most blockbusters in the shade for sheer spectacle.

Few will now doubt the vicious intensity of the gladiator arena, while the first view of the Colosseum is as awe-inspiring as, say, the first view of the Titanic. And there is certainly an adrenalin rush to be gained from watching Crowe battle a heavily armoured opponent while bidding to stay out of the reach of three tigers!

Gladiator looks set to slay the opposition at the Box Office this summer and as a historical epic in the mould of the aforementioned Spartacus, it more than holds its own. It may even revive a genre.