Though slow in spots, good action scenes mean that Ridley Scott managed to create one last iconic movie before the inevitable critical decline. The beginning is a special kind of slog, all blue tinting with occasional spurts of yellow flame in a battle scene which's a tiny bit on the dull side; I blame lack of stakes so early in the game (another rebellion the Roman Empire needs to put down); then again, the only purpose of this fight is to demonstrate what a popular guy and great tactician Maximus (Russell Crowe) is. Things don't get any more compelling with the entrance of Emperor Richard Harris, who expositions with anyone he comes into contact with, including his daughter Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), Crowe, and son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix); the latter proves himself a bad apple when he bumps off pop and blames Crowe.
Being a farmer, which means that he's a nice, incorruptible guy, Crowe escapes execution to save his wife and son, who he LOVES VERY MUCH. This doesn't bode well with this type of movie, and following following the sacred movie law of killing off the hero's dearies to provide him motivation to get all medieval on the asses of his enemies, they are brutally murdered.
Somehow, Crowe is found, and is taken to the desert with Juba (Djimon Hounsou), a Black actor who'd be whitty's sidekick again in Blood Diamond (2006) No complaints about him , or really any of the actors here, because he's really good and has a ton of presence, and outlives many of the white characters when the credits roll (the last time I saw that in a sword/sandals film was, what, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)?)
Crowe and Hounsou become buddies, and they get bought by Gladiator trainer to Oliver Reed, whose presence automatically raised my interest 20%; he died during the making of this film, but it's nice that his last movie was something so uncharacteristically classy and high budget.
And with his appearance, plus the tinting change from blue to brownish tan (because desert), the movie gets a whole lot more compelling, because the action needs to fit the title, so Crowe becomes a GLADIATOR!!! Being a general, he's really good at killing people. Meanwhile, in the still-impressive CGI, gray-tinted landscapes of Rome, Joaquin really takes to the role of emperor, toying with dealing the incest card with his very NOT receptive sister. She's in love with Crowe, but thankfully is very subdued: less swooney and more repressed attraction. She also actively tries to help Crowe, and gets to show all sorts of worried faces as she tries to protect her son (and future Emperor) from eeeeeeevil Joaquin.
Meanwhile, as Crowe becomes a superstar and creates a meme ("Are you not ENTERTAINED?!") We find out that Crowe has a method behind his consistent killing: he wants to be so good and popular, that the Emperor will go down to meet him, and Crowe can kill him. Sounds like a good plan, but considering how much longer we have to go, it's not gonna work. We need complications, dun dun dun. Which include tigers, Germans, and I Claudius (Derek Jacobi) showing up.
Won't lie, this is chockfull of cliches, but this is made up with surprisingly compelling characters and action sequences, which are a bit over-edited, but very comprehensible, thank God, all of which results in a genuinely moving ending. Additionally, Though this is a sausagefest of full of men fighting and killing other men (mostly white), it was nice to see some Black women gladiators show up in the carthage battle, throwing spears. They end up dying in brutal ways, like their male cohorts, so equal opportunities? Other than that, not really any other signs of female fighters; there's only one major woman character (and she's the only one to have any lines) and that's the sister. I hope that a movie is eventually made about a female gladiator, preferably with no involvement of gratuitous nudity).
To kinda change the topic, I wonder how many other films there are that follow the "dead family/loved ones as motivation" cliche? Off the top of my head, I can think of Death Wish (1974), Mad Max (1979), The Punisher films, and the gender-fliped The Brave One (2007), but there are definitely others. Here, the doomed family is only seen briefly, which I can't really complain of, because had there been more scenes with them, then this movie would've ran way over 2 1/2 hours. But at the same time, this is downgrading characters down to them only existing so that the hero can have proper motivation to be Mad Maximus. But ultimately, it didn't prevent me from getting emotional during the death scene, so go figure.