When Emperor Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus murders his father, he must also do away with Maximus Decimus Meridius, the finest general. Maximus escapes his execution, but finds his wife and child murdered. Wandering and wounded near death, he is picked up and put into slavery, and selected to fight for sport as a gladiator. From there, he seeks revenge.
Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Quo Vadis - that was when they made movies as big as cities, proper, meaty, swallow-an-afternoon films. Well, what may have been out of vogue for 40 years is making one hell of a comeback. In the grandest tradition of them all, Ridley Scott, together with man of the moment Russell Crowe, has enriched the legacy of sandals, swords and leather wrist thingees to create a magnificent epic. Hammering on all the touchstones of yore while utilising all the tricks the modern filmmaker has to hand, this is hardly subtle, but its impact is absolute, its performances loud and clear and its ambition all up there on screen.
Commencing with a full-scale, extras unlimited, realism unabated battle sequence in a mud strewn Germanica, we are confronted by a general tired of war and an emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), near death. Furious at the bond between Aurelius and his beloved warrior, his unhinged heir, Commodus, kills pop and condemns Maximus to death. Big mistake. Especially when you kill his loving wife and child, whom he yearns to for, by burning and crucifixion.
And so the plot follows Maximus rise as a gladiator - trained by a remarkably vociferous and effective Oliver Reed, whose face is peculiarly CGI'd in certain scenes from beyond the grave - driven by lust for revenge. In the meantime, Rome is in turmoil with the nutty new emperor, played with gleeful hamminess by Phoenix, attempting to dismantle the Senate while his doting sister Lucilla (Nielsen) seems to have other plans. And just to make things more complicated, she happens to be Maximus' ex.
Russell Crowe was clearly born in a hard month, in a hard year during a freak outbreak of total hardness. The man exudes the physicality of a wild animal. Shifting testosterone like a pre-bloated Brando, he holds the screen with such assuredness and force you simply can't rip your eyes away from him. When he looks pissed off (as he does for 90 percent of the time), the movie possesses its own gravitational pull.
Ridley Scott was also the man for the job. His trademark visual panache - making everything seem utterly glorious no matter how brutal or gritty - presents the events on a truly epic canvas of filtered light and ancient landscapes. CGI has recreated Rome's massive colosseum and the gore splattered combat sequences therein are literally stunning - the face-off between Maximus' and his gladiator brothers and a stream of chariots in mid-arena makes a mockery of Ben-Hur's fabled race sequence, and utilising Private Ryan-esque frame-jumping techniques gives the fighting a tangible realism that crashes out of the screen.
There is an interesting if token commentary on the use of violent entertainment to subvert the masses, but on the whole, historical accuracy is reserved more for the technical elements than any sense of political, religious or dialectic truth (accents are all over the shop). The film also bobbles in its need to cram so much politicking in, to draw in an empire in crisis to the more personal story of one man's revenge.
While it's all grand opera, and driven by sweeping gestures and pompous, overwritten dialogue, it is prone to plain silliness - especially in granting us the big showdown at the close. But the sheer dynamism of the action, coupled with Hans Zimmer's lavish score and the forcefield of Crowe, still makes this a fiercesome competitor in the summer movie stakes.