Single-handedly reviving a long-lost genre -- the "sword-and-sandals epic" -- this exciting action picture boasts top-notch production values, creative and engaged (if occasionally ill-considered) direction from Ridley Scott, and -- at long last -- a star-making performance from Australian actor Russell Crowe. The chief appeal of Gladiator is its retro vibe, but some of Scott's artistic choices smack of a shallow attempt to stay modern, such as the hand-held camera and hitching, as well as ultra-focused images in the film's battle sequences, both inspired by Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998). The script by David Franzoni, rewritten by John Logan and William Nicholson (some of it during filming), is sometimes scattershot, foregoing character development as it forages too widely in search of sweep, thus providing doses of everything under the Italian sun: revenge, political intrigue, romance, action, and historical background. Though never delivering the emotional power an audience might crave, Gladiator is rescued by sharp editing, marvelous design and effects, and superb performances from Crowe, the briefly seen Richard Harris, and the impressively slick, fey, high-camp posturing of the lizard-like Joaquin Phoenix. The mix of traditional costumes and set design with the new development of computer-generated imagery produces some eye-popping visuals, especially the lingering overhead shots of the coliseum in Rome, one of the best uses to date of high-tech special effects. As a summer popcorn picture, Gladiator succeeds on most levels and provides some unabashed, old-fashioned entertainment. Similarities were noted by many critics to the earlier epic The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) from director Anthony Mann, which features many of the same characters.