Once upon a time, gladiators in Ancient Rome were familiar heroes of cinema, and 'road shows' wended their ways across the country, celebrating the exploits of Ben-Hur, Demetrius and the Gladiators and Spartacus. Ironically, the 1964 epic The Fall of the Roman Empire marked the decline of the Roman Empire as the focus for the action epic, a decline which may well be reversed by Ridley Scott, whose action-packed Roman extravaganza Gladiator opened the summer movie season with a $35 million weekend.

Scott's nearly three-hour-long action spectacle begins far from Rome, in the snow-covered forests of the North where the Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe in a career-defining performance) has been waging war for three years. A victor at last, Maximus is startled when the sickly emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) designates him to be his successor, bypassing his preening son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and daughter Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). Commodus murders his father and orders the execution of Maximus and his family back in Spain. The general escapes but winds up a slave, and eventually a gladiator in the Roman Colosseum, where his prowess becomes legendary. Meanwhile, he bides his time until he can kill Commodus and avenge the deaths of his loved ones.

Gladiator is both a familiar story and a breakthrough movie. Scott's take on the Roman Empire inevitably recalls the narratives of the 1950s and early '60s, but, in its scope and certainly its budget-reported to be well beyond $100 million-it carves out new ground, especially in its state-of-the-art computer-graphic imaging. Scott constantly puts up on the screen visions that earlier filmmakers could only dream about, from the brutal opening battle sequences in the forests of Germania to the diabolical games devised by the scheming Commodus.

Scott takes to the Roman Colosseum scenes like a dog after a bone, and the results are highly charged, stunning and often darkly amusing. The late Oliver Reed, who died a year ago, delivers a richly comic performance-the film is dedicated to him-as Proximo, a canny provider of gladiators. Visually, the Colosseum scenes are an ongoing delight, and cinematographer John Mathieson provides a continual panorama that is lively and provocative.

Among the other outstanding performances, one must credit Harris, whose patriarchal Marcus Aurelius sidesteps the broad strokes this veteran actor is too often renowned for, in favor of a more studied and credible portrayal. As the conniving Lucilla, Nielsen is an imposing, ethereal presence, in contrast with her somewhat effete brother, whose sexuality suggests that he may be drawn to one or more members of his family circle.

If Gladiator stops well short of being a classic, it nonetheless offers moments of spectacle that linger long past the movie's two-and-a-half-hour running time. If the film is unintentionally funny at times-one character grumbles that 'I am terribly vexed'-and some of Gladiator may also remind its audience of the World Wrestling Federation, so be it. Whether it's in the Roman Colosseum or the local multiplex, there's something to be said for bread and circuses.

--Ed Kelleher