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Returning to the glory of "Blade Runner," Ridley Scott masters the sword 'n' sandal spectacle with epic style in "Gladiator."

Epic Blast

"Gladiator" is a stunning achievement. So stunning in fact, I am not quite sure where to begin extolling its cinematic virtues. Following in the grand tradition of "Quo Vadis," "Ben Hur" and "Spartacus," Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" pays homage to those cinematic grandfathers while carving out its own mesmerizing spot in the lineage.

From its opening sequences of The Battle of the Danube, "Gladiator" reels you in with heart-stopping visuals, visceral acting and an epic story of treachery, betrayal and personal honor. It's old-fashioned storytelling told with newfangled special effects. Yes, there's blood and gore. Yes, its running time is a whopping 154 minutes. And yes, it's all worth it.

Not being a scholar of ancient Rome, I cannot tell you how closely the story hews to the historical line. Being a movie lover, I can tell you how engrossing I found this movie. Muscular and bloody in the same vein of "Braveheart," Scott's "Gladiator" gives us a hero as equally honorable as William Wallace. He is General Maximus (Russell Crowe) and in the first 10 minutes of the film, we watch as he spurs his Roman troops on in battle against the Germanic barbarians. "Unleash hell," he commands them. And they do. In jagged, impressionistic style, Scott takes us into the fray.

But as Maximus vanquishes his foes on the battlefield, a different type of trouble begins to percolate. More of a son to the ailing Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) than the emperor's own progeny Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), the triumphant soldier Maximus learns that he has been named as Aurelius' successor. The arrogant and unbalanced Commodus finds this news unacceptable and takes matters into his own hands. He kills his father and orders the execution of Maximus. Maximus escapes his fate and rushes home only to discover that Commodus has killed his wife and family and torched his farm. In the poetic tradition of tragic heroes, the loss of his loved ones sets Maximus on a single-minded pursuit of vengeance.

Almost an hour into the film, the action shifts to North Africa, where Maximus has been sold into slavery to Proximo (Oliver Reed). Something akin to the Don King of the gladiator ring, Proximo is unaware of his new slave's true identity. Thrown into the arena for the first time, Maximus fights well, especially when he teams up with the African Juba ("Amistad's" Djimon Hounsou), who was once the leader of Maximus' Numidian archers.

Trying to curry favor with his people, now-Emperor Commodus orders 150 days worth of games at the Colosseum. The lure of easy money brings Proximo and his best fighters back to Rome. An old gladiator himself, Proximo tells his new stars not only to win their battles, but win the crowd as well.

Held in the dark bowels of the stadium, the gladiators are then rushed to the surface and burst out of the darkness into blinding sunlight as the frenzied crowd reaches a fever pitch of bloodthirsty excitement. As stunning a visual as the movie's opening battle scene, Scott fills the screen with confusing, gory hand-to-hand combat. Maximus acquits himself well, earning the attention of Commodus. The emperor is horrified to learn that this slave is really the rival he thought long dead. While her neurotic brother fumes and plots against this new idol of the people, Lucilla arranges a meeting. A former lover of Maximus, she lures him into a plot with rogue Senator Gracchus (the always wonderful Derek Jacobi) to overthrow her brother.

Besides Scott's masterful command in the battle sequences and his fast-cut, speed-driven action in the gladiator arena, the film offers singularly solid performances from the entire cast. Crowe, who earned a great deal of acclaim for his role as the whistle-blower in last year's "The Insider," gives a jaw-dropping performance here. He may not be what comes to mind when you think gladiator, but he quickly wins you over. Phoenix is equally good as the neurotic, evil Commodus, and Nielsen makes as much as she can out of the plotting Lucilla, the script's weakest character.

But my favorite character is Proximo. The late Oliver Reed turns in arguably one of his top three performances here. Knowing that he died while making the film on Malta adds a bittersweet touch of remorse to his portrayal.

Reveling in both the glory and the terror that was Rome, "Gladiator" offers viewers a rarer treat than the lusty, muscular revival of a once-dead genre: an intelligent script. Political correctness be damned, "Gladiator" is bloody thrilling.

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