as reviewed by Skylaire Alfvegren

Oh, joy and rapture! Few feelings match the raw exhilaration of walking out of a summer blockbuster that exceeds your expectations. The view from Mount Everest? Spotting a unicorn in the forest? Ed McMahon on your doorstep? Scenarios you're about as likely to encounter as... well, a great summer movie.

Gladiator meshes the sophistication and brutality of ancient Rome in truly epic style. The ultimate historical paradox, the city-state boasted a thoroughly modern government, tremendous architectural and scientific knowledge and simply dripped with culture. Yet, as the opening credits are eager to point out, one quarter of the known world's population fell to conquering Roman armies in their quest to expand the empire. The story just begs for cinematic exploitation.

But four decades have passed since the spectacle was brought to the silver screen. Ben Hur (1959) cast Charlton Heston as a prince forced into slavery who encounters Jesus and wows his captors with some feisty chariot racing. A year later, Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus told the story of a slave who revolts against the Romans only to be drafted as a gladiator. Both films featured strong leading men, epic grandeur and a cast of thousands. (Not too mention a bit of buggery and well-written scripts.) Monumental elements that apparently scared the studios into making movies with car crashes and renegade cops and wacky sidekicks.

Gladiator definitely has an old school feel to it, from the opulent sets and exotic locales down to the peculiar accent native to historical epics–upper crust and vaguely British. Director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) shellacs the production with enough bombast to make everything from the CGI effects to Maximus' fight scenes vividly splendiferous.

We first encounter the unspeakably brave and forthright General Maximus (Russell Crowe) as he's crushing barbarian hordes under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), a scholar who has spent most of his reign waging war to expand the empire. Aurelius dies mysteriously before he can leave Rome in the hands of Maximus, who is ordered to be executed by Aurelius' petulant, pan-sexual teen age son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix).

Patriotism isn't a new concept. Maximus escapes, is recaptured and made a slave, only to be bought by gladiator trainer Proximo (Oliver Reed, who passed away while on location in Malta). Maximus' winds up facing off with the crooked Commodus, who has brought the 1st century equivalent of the WWF back to the Coliseum in an attempt to gain the love of the Roman people. Instead, the General becomes a celebrity whose allegiance to his country and hatred of Commodus combine in spectacular fashion.

The drama is taut, believable and unsullied by fuzzy romantic sub plots. Themes of redemption, conquest, democracy and revenge are actually entertaining, unstifling. Best of all, Gladiator throws smug cinemaphiles plenty of loops along the way, proving blockbusters can be REALLY GOOD while refusing to victimize us with their usual clichés and conventions. Closer in spirit and style to the epics of yore, Gladiator is an experience and even does away with the most hideous Hollywood epidemic of all: the perfectly happy ending.