In the same way that Braveheart does not stand up to scrutiny off the battlefield, Ridley Scott's 2nd century extravaganza dies during those pauses between blood, sweat and fear.

The story is as daft as a brush. Of course, you could say that the Roman Empire, during its corrupt, decadent period, was off its trolly. Look at Caligula.

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The film opens in an English wood. This is Germania, where a horde of fur-clad mountain men have gathered for the final onslaught. Their attackers from distant Italia have the training, the discipline, the smart weapons. The Barbarians have big beards and bad breath.

Not only is the ailing Caesar, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), risking his health in this dank country, when he could have left it to his redoubtable general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), but his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), and daughter, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), turn up in an armoured carriage - two months on the road? - to watch the fight, as if it was a day at the races.

When you hear the order, "At my signal, unleash hell," you know the scriptwriters are going to let you down and that this epic cinematic indulgence is nothing more than a voyeuristic war game, in which Scott shows off the tricks he learnt making commercials all those years ago. The 15-certificate assumes that teenagers are immune to graphic scenes of mutilation.

Once Marcus Aurelius is out of the way, Commodus turns into Richard III. He orders Maximus dead and has his family crucified. He lusts after Lucilla and starts looking funny at her son. On his return to Rome, he announces 150 days of festivities, which means re-enactments of famous battles in the arena, for the sake of the mob, his new constituents. "He'll bring them death," Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), the sole wise senator, says. "And they'll love him for it."

Maximus does not die - surprise! He finds himself in Morocco, is captured by a nomadic tribe, enslaved and brought to Proximo's (Oliver Reed) gladiator school. Here he thrives, ending up in the Colosseum, fighting for his life before a demanding crowd, which includes his arch enemy, the paranoid meglomaniac, Commodus.

There is little honour to be gained from this movie. The gladiatorial scenes make Ben Hur look like a jog in the park, which only emphasises the importance of fight choreography. When you are made aware of computer generated inserts, it is no better than old fashioned back projection.

Technology, however sophisticated, is still in the fakery business. The actors have to wrestle with appalling lines, which is odd considering the writers' track records - David Franzoni (Amistad), John Logan (Any Given Sunday), William Nicholson (Shadowlands). Reed died half way through the shoot. His performance is a tribute to professional courage.

Harris can hardly keep a straight face. Phoenix has a respectable English accent, but no charisma, while Nielsen is bland. Jacobi provides snatches of the real thing - too brief - and Crowe scowls darkly throughout, as if someone has just told him that he failed to win an Oscar for The Insider.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Gladiator packshot
The revenge of a disgraced Roman general turned gladiator.
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Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson

Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, Tomas Arana, Ralf Moeller, Spencer Treat Clark, David Hemmings, Tommy Flanagan, Sven-Ole Thorsen

Year: 2000

Runtime: 155 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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