Russell Crowe is Maximus the famous general of the Roman army. The victory of one final battle, which solidifies Rome as the most powerful force and grants Maximus the opportunity to retire and return to his family. But the emperor, Marcus Aurelius, has one last request of him, that upon his death he should go to Rome and be the intermediary of power, that rule might be given back to the people and the Senate. But once Marcus's son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) learns of his father's plans to decline him title of emperor upon his death, he strangles him and takes his place as Rome's new emperor.
When Maximus is offered a place at Commodus's side, he quickly declines knowing all to well the demise of Marcus was no natural cause, and aware of the evil Commodus is capable of. But one cannot say no to Commodus without reaping some punishment, and Maximus's punishment is his death, as well as the death of his family. But he manages to narrowly escape execution, only to learn his family was not as luckily. Beaten and half dead he is captured by a group of slave traders and sold to a man named Proximo who provides gladiatorial events for the viewing pleasure of the public. Maximus becomes Proximo's biggest seller, and with news of their scheduled events in Rome this becomes a perfect time for Maximus to seek his revenge on Commodus and help save Rome from the pit it has begun to sink into.
After the success of Braveheart in 1995, Gladiator was the first epic film to be worthy of comparison, and after it's release in 2000 a slew of period piece epics soon followed in an attempt to latch onto some of Gladiator's success. As a film Gladiator is pretty flawless, the only negative thing I can possibly think of is a few scenes where it tends to drag a little (noticed more so in the extended version which really adds nothing to the story), but it's nothing that slows the progression of the film to any large degree. Russell Crowe is of course brilliant, not only did this film garner him an academy award but it also solidified him as a bankable leading actor and skyrocketed his career to the top.
But another actor Gladiator helped to boost was Joaquin Phoenix. I think in the midst of Russell's performance and recognition Phoenix gets overlooked. While he did receive an academy award nomination for his role, Phoenix's portrayal of this vile, selfish character is as important to the film if not more than Russell's. It's one of the better villain roles I've seen in the last 10 years, and Phoenix not only delivers the role verbally well, but he physically portrays the character brilliantly. In my opinion he deserved an Oscar as much as Crowe.
Overall, Gladiator is a must see film. It will go down in history as a classic among the likes of Ben-Hur and Spartacus. Visually stunning, musically inspiring, and two amazing performances by two outstanding actors, not to mention a wonderful supporting cast. No mercy is needed for this film, it's a champion all by itself.