Gladiator, well cast and impressively staged, is every inch the summer blockbuster it intends to be. It's also something more. Amid the action and intrigue, director Scott makes a few points about blockbuster-style entertainment.
Moviegoers may not have been pining for such spectacles since speeding chariots last rumbled through theaters in 1959's Ben-Hur and 1960's Spartacus, but the juiced-up Gladiator proves there's still plenty of grappa left in the genre.
For those old enough to remember the 70mm epics of yesteryear, this is a nostalgic synthesis of all of them. For those who haven't seen those earlier movies, Scott will open their eyes to a "brand-new" old world.
The fusion of the ancient and the modern -- even to the point of some sly echoes of our own sports-mad society -- is seamless. Gladiator does indeed deliver the glory that was Rome, but it also clinically dissects the assumptions on which it was built.
Russell Crowe is as believable a Spaniard here as Charlton Heston was a Mexican in "Touch of Evil." But director Ridley Scott took greater interest in entwining an empire's intrigue with its people's turmoil than emphasizing bread-and-circus brutality.
Scott triumphantly transports us back to the Roman Empire circa 180 A.D. with a painter's eye for detail, a proven talent for manufacturing exotic realities (such as the future shock of Blade Runner) and a sweet tooth for utter spectacle.
Though the digital effects lack the weight and conviction of their equivalents in old Cecil B. De Mille movies, Ridley Scott's sword-and-sandal epic has some of the intensity of old Hollywood in terms of storytelling, spectacle, and violence.
The cast is strong (notably Nielsen as Commodus's vacillating sister, and the late Oliver Reed, unusually endearing as a gladiator owner), the pacing lively, and the sets, swordplay and Scud catapults impressive.