Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is old and frail, close to death. His son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is a disappointment to him and not a worthy successor, although his ambition is endless. Marcus asks his victorious General Maximus (Russell Crowe) to take over the reins as Protector of Rome and return power to the people, but before this wish can become reality, Commodus senses something amiss and intervenes, triggering a chain of events that changes the future of the Roman Empire. Maximus has to survive Commodus' jealous fury, the assassination of his own family and the ignominy of being a slave. But it is as a slave-gladiator that Maximus finds the way to serve Rome once again, and help deliver on his promise to the late Emperor Marcus.

A majestic epic filled with blood and glory.

The Roman legions under General Maximus, (Russell Crowe), defeat the armies of Germania in a spectacular battle. During the subsequent celebrations, the elderly Emperor Marcus Aurelius, (Richard Harris), confides in Maximus that he distrusts his unstable son, Commodus, (Joaquin Phoenix) – Marcus Aurelius wants his powers passed to the Senate after his death, and commands Maximus to see that this is done. But Commodus murders his father and seizes power; Maximus flees for his life, is sold into slavery and eventually returns to Rome as a gladiator.

It's been 35 years since we had a large scale Roman epic – the last was Anthony Mann's majestic The Fall Of The Roman Empire, in which Marcus Aurelius was played by Alec Guinness and Commodus by Christopher Plummer – and Ridley Scott's marvellous film is firmly in the great tradition of that and others, like Spartacus. The journey of Maximus, from triumph on the battlefield through despair and degradation in slavery and then to a final epiphany in the Colosseum is an exciting one – and Russell Crowe plays the character with considerable toughness and authority – a grand leap from his completely different performance in The Insider.

There's also a wonderful swansong performance from Oliver Reed as the head of the gladiator school – Reed died during production, but fortunately Scott was able to complete the film.

Joaquin Phoenix makes an interesting villain, but the film is dominated by the impressive sets, the amazing visual and sound effects, Hans Zimmer's great music score, and the sheer panache of Scott's direction.