The problem is that epics cost a lot of money, and the money can't be spent on Industrial Light and Magic-style outer space explosions, as they tend to fit in poorly with stories about ancient Rome.
No, in an epic you have to spend a lot of cash on extras, so that the battle scenes and crowd scenes are convincing. But really, a battle scene featuring a thousand extras is way more cool than a space explosion, so director Ridley Scott took up the challenge and opened Gladiator with an awesome battle, featuring siege engines, a burning forest, muddy Romans and ancient German warriors so real you could practically smell 'em.
It's the perfect epic opening: lots of blood, lots of violence, and some silly dialogue like "At my signal, unleash hell!" Now that's the movies.
Gladiator tells the story of the last days of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the reign of his evil son Commodus. Of course, like all good historical dramas, this one has a healthy disregard for things like "history," producing more of a comic book-style "What If?" story. You know, like "What if Spiderman had been emperor of Rome?" or "What if the Hulk lived in 180 A.D.?"
Here the fictive element is added by the character Maximus (Russell Crowe), who, in a departure from the "facts," is named emperor by Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). However, before Marcus can tell anyone else about this, he's killed by his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, who is perfect as the sniveling cry-baby ruler of the world). Commodus thus ascends to emperor, and makes an outlaw of Maximus, who must flee into the incredibly well photographed forests of the ancient world.
Maximus runs to save his wife and son, but he gets to his lovely Spanish villa a bit too late, as Commodus' men have already killed them. Captured by slavers, Maximus is then taken to North Africa to become a gladiator.
His new owner, Proximo, is played by veteran British actor Oliver Reed. Sort of. It seems that Reed, who was one of the greats of the British screen, died before filming on Gladiator was complete, so some of the effects budget went to digitally recreating him for a few scenes.
There are other digital humans in Gladiator as well, mostly people in the cheap seats at the Coliseum, and there are some digitally inserted buildings, but it's all pretty unobtrusive -- no Jar Jar Binkses, as it were.
Gladiator suffers through a few slow moments, and doesn't quite deserve its two-hour-40-minute run time, but when it gets to the gladiator fights it's back in all-out-epic-action mode again. One of the best bits involves Maximus bitterly shouting at the crowd, "Are you entertained? Is this what you wanted?" You have to like any movie that has the balls to come out against entertainment. Maximus is sort of the Sex Pistols of ancient Roman gladiators, verbally abusing the audience and being loved for it.
In fact, he's so loved that he comes to the attention of the emperor, who of course is not his best friend, and is a bit surprised to see him. Here, Joaquin Phoenix comes to the fore, doing a really creepy Commodus, the emperor who only wanted to be loved. Since his daddy didn't love him, he asks his sister if she would love him in a special adult way, an offer she finds a bit repulsive. Next, he asks the Roman people to love him, but they're also turned off by his neediness. Finally, he takes to the gladiator ring himself, seeing as the people love the gladiators. Of course, stacking the deck heavily in his favor is not the best way to win the crowds over, and Commodus continues in heavy, sulking, no-one-loves-me mode.
The acting is all pretty top-notch in Gladiator, and features a lovely mix of accents that reflects either the polyglot world of ancient Rome or the fact that movie directors think any foreign accent is good enough to indicate the past.
Other than the acting and beautiful photography, Gladiator is not going to win any prizes (well, no real prizes; it could win an Oscar®), as it's typical Ridley Scott: very beautiful, but a bit shallow, and takes itself way too seriously. Still, that's pretty much what you want out of an epic, so if you're hankering for the kind of man-on-man action that only the ancient world can provide, you could do much worse than seeing Gladiator.