Earnest silliness starring Russell Crowe as the rather obviously-named Maximus ("the great"), a fictional Spanish general in the ancient Roman Empire who, after leading Marcus Aurelius' army into victory, is chosen by Marcus to be his successor as Emperor of Rome. This doesn't sit well with Marcus' ambitious son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who smothers his father and, as his first act as the new Emperor, orders Maximus executed. He also has Maximus' wife and son killed, for no particular reason other than to be evil, and to give Maximus a reason to seek revenge, which he does - that is, after he escapes his execution, becomes a slave, and proves his mettle in the battle arena as a, well, gladiator.
Hey. It's Hollywood. You get what you expect. Big screen action! Ancient Rome re-created before your very eyes! Star power! Corny dialogue! And a surprising number of slow, talky scenes! (It must be a cardinal rule of cinema that everybody in ancient times - except for Charlton Heston - must speak classic English with educated British accents. Though I admit it would be strange to hear Joaquin Phoenix deliver his lines in his usual American burnout tone.) The acting is uniformly solid; not a single performer is wasted. Everybody gets their Impressive Dramatic Scene. I'm being cheeky, but they all do very well with the material (especially British acting warhorses Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, and the late Oliver Reed in his final role), which is crucial, since the story is rather predictable and hokey. A lesser cast would have ruined it.
I recommend Gladiator as pure spectacle. But one viewing tip: there is a kid in the film who looks and sounds a lot like Haley Joel Osment. Don't waste your time like I did wondering if it really is him. It's not.