When he's "on," director Ridley Scott is really on (as in the cases of the first "Alien" and "Thelma & Louise"). But when he's "off," the results can be just plain bad ("G.I. Jane" and "1492: The Conquest of Paradise").

So when Scott announced plans to make a big-budget gladiator film — an updated "Spartacus," if you will — there was at least as much gnashing of teeth as there was excitement. Among the biggest fears was that he was getting ready to unload another "Legend" on an unsuspecting moviegoing public.

Fortunately, the resulting film, "Gladiator," has Scott being a lot more "on" than he's been for a long, long time. It's a handsome-looking, testosterone-driven epic that's among the very best things he's ever produced.

However, be warned that it's also possibly the most violent film he's ever made, with graphic scenes of swordfights, hand-to-hand combat and other battles that are not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.

If you can stand all of the bloodshed though, it's well worth the effort, especially for fans of actor Russell Crowe. In fact, you shouldn't be surprised if the Aussie is elevated to superstar status (in much the same way that "The Road Warrior" propelled his former countryman, Mel Gibson, to bigger things).

Crowe stars as the title character, a former Roman general named Maximus who falls out of favor with the new emperor of Rome.

After finally conquering those pesky German hordes, Maximus is due for a big promotion from Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris, in a terrific supporting role). He wants Maximus to help turn the one-man-rules empire into a truly democratic republic.

But before that change in power can take place, the emperor's son, Commodus (a beefed-up Joaquin Phoenix), kills his father and ascends to the throne, after which he also sentences Maximus, his childhood friend, to die.

The crafty war hero narrowly escapes execution, but his beloved wife and son aren't so fortunate. To add insult to injury, the wounded, grieving man is sold into slavery, where he's thrown into the fighting ring by Proximo (the late Oliver Reed, in his final role).

While he's reluctant to fight at first, Maximus soon becomes the best of Proximo's fighters and begins to see the arena as a way to gain revenge on the increasingly paranoid and megalomaniacal Commodus.

Usually the quality of a film's screenplay is inversely proportionate to the number of its writers and revisions. But despite numerous rewrites, this one's a keeper, managing to touch on issues of mob mentality, the inhumanity of fighting "sports," etc., without getting too clunky and contrived.

Of course, it helps that it wound up in the hands of the perfect realist, Scott, whose use of slow motion and hand-held camera work here never gets in the way of telling a good story.

Also, there's been much talk about the digital effects used to help finish the performance of Reed, who died before completing his work on the film. In fact, the effects are so seamless that it's hard to spot any of them.

Not that any of the other performers need such tricks. Crowe, who was so effective in "The Insider," excels here in a much more physically demanding — though no less satisfying — role, while Phoenix reveals acting skills no one could have expected from him. (He nearly steals the whole film as the deliciously evil but all-too-human villain of the piece.)

"Gladiator" is rated R for graphic gladiator battles (including beheadings, slashings and stabbings), gruesome gore, brief nudity (partial male nudity and glimpses of nude statues) and a pair of profanities. Running time: 154 minutes.

You can reach Jeff Vice by e-mail at jeff@desnews.com