Seen it before? Yes.
Russell Crowe plays Maximus, a Roman general. After he wins a battle, the dying emperor (Richard Harris) tells him that he will be named the new emperor instead of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the emperor's son. The emperor is an idiot, and he only tells two people about his plan: Maximus, and Commodus, who reacts to the news by killing the emperor and ordering Maximus and his whole family slaughtered. Maximus escapes, finds his family murdered, and then gets captured and sold into slavery. Then he becomes a gladiator, and wins a whole bunch of fights. This puts him in a position to exact his revenge on the emperor.
Things I liked about this movie:
- The performances, mostly. Joaquin Phoenix is appropriately creepy. Lots of veterans like Derek Jacobi and Oliver Reed lend a level of gravitas. Russell Crowe was fine; he didn't deserve friggin Best Actor but that's OK. (I would have given it to Tom Hanks for Cast Away.)
- The recreation of Rome looks pretty amazing. Lots of detail. Some fakey looking CGI (the shots with the flocks of birds) but not that much.
- The battle scenes were pretty great.
- The use of slow motion. the director uses it too much, and it doesn't look good. Maybe somebody who knows more about movies can explain this better, but it looks like they just took regular footage and slowed it down, which means the framerate is too slow and it looks choppy.
- A lot of the gladiator fights were shot in a way that was too confusing and blurry. I think a lot of the unwatchable action movies of the '00s took their inspiration from this.
- The characters. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, and it's all pretty much black and white. Maximus is pure and innocent; he's Cincinnatus. Commodus is 100% evil. A little more sophistication would have been nice.
- The soundtrack. Vaguely middle-eastern sounding music with a woman wailing in some indistinct language. It's become overused to the point of becoming a joke by now (see Tropic Thunder). But here it's totally annoying and distracting.
- The hypocrisy! You can't have all of these violent action scenes, and then try to make some point about "Are you not entertained?" That's having your cake and eating it too.
- You know, for somebody that the movie paints as this entirely blameless white knight, Maximus certainly does kill a lot of people...
Died during filming: Oliver Reed, who played Proximo. They had to use a double for a lot of his scenes.