Germania, 180 A.D. (a.k.a.: old).
The Romans, under the leadership of their studly general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), are preparing for one final battle against the frankly terrifying Germanic tribes. But the promise of peace looms. The Romans easily defeat their enemy in a bloody fight while the emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), looks on.
Score 1: Russell Crowe's scowl.
After the battle, Marcus Aurelius and Maximus talk. They're clearly old friends. Later in the evening, Marcus Aurelius tells Maximus that he'd like him to take over control after he dies. He's adamant that his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who has recently arrived in Germania with his sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), not rule. He is "not a moral man."
(Pro-tip: you can tell just how not moral Commodus is because he's so sweaty. He's glistening with immoral perspiration throughout most of this film.)
Maximus decides to think it over. In the meantime, Commodus is informed that he won't be the next emperor. In a hissy fit of rage and grief, he smothers his father, and then lies about it.
Maximus just knows something evil has happened, but before he can rally his troops and serve justice, Commodus has him arrested and taken for execution. It's not really clear why Commodus has him arrested…but it definitely has something to do with the fact that Commodus knows Maximus suspects something (it's the old get-rid-of-your-enemies-and-the-evidence routine).
Anway, Maximus vanquishes his executioners, and then races back to Spain (where he lives). Commodus, however, beats him to the punch. Roman Praetorians have already slaughtered Maximus' family. Maximus is beside himself. He buries his family and passes out.
What: were you expecting a happy movie about gladiators?
A slave caravan picks him up, and when he awakes he's somewhere in the desert. Soon we learn that he's in Africa, on the outskirts of the Roman Empire. He's purchased, along with the other slaves, by a slave-owner/entertainer named Proximo (Oliver Reed).
During his first training session at Proximo's house/training camp, Maximus refuses to fight. We get the impression that he's just planning on standing around and getting killed so the misery will be over. Everything changes once he's thrust into the arena, where he decides to defend himself and ultimately distinguishes himself.
Score 2: Russell Crowe's scowl.
Meanwhile, Commodus arrives back in Rome, entering like a "conquering hero," according to Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi). Commodus has his first meeting with the Senate, and it's clear that he even though he pretends to care about the people, all he really cares about is power.
Lucilla, who has some idea of what really happened to their father, acts as an intermediary between Commodus and the senators. Commodus knows he needs to do something to consolidate power, and he decides to stage a series of gladiator games to honor his late father and give the people the kind of spectacle they want and crave.
Back in Africa, Maximus wins another major battle. He's clearly not happy about the way things have turned out, and angrily throws a sword into the stands, screaming, "Are you not entertained?" It's epic. And yes; Russell Crowe is scowling the whole time.
Proximo tells him that he too was once a gladiator, and that he was released from servitude by Marcus Aurelius. He also tells him they're going to Rome to compete. He knows Maximus is good, but he could be magnificent. He also tells him that the key to winning his freedom is winning the crowd.
Personal branding: also a big deal in Ancient Rome.
The gladiator caravan arrives in Rome. Their first competition is a reenactment of one of the battles of Carthage. They're supposed to play the role of the losers, but end up destroying their competition. Commodus is pleased, and goes down to meet the famous Spaniard (Maximus' new name).
He discovers that the Spaniard is Maximus, and the two have a strange confrontation. Commodus is in disbelief, and Maximus promises revenge. The crowd loves Maximus already, and Commodus can't kill him because that would be political suicide.
Lucilla's glimpsed a ray of hope in Maximus' survival, and visits him later that night. He has no interest in talking with her…because he thinks she was complicit in Commodus' plans. (She's Commodus' sister, after all.)
She wants him to meet with a senator, but he refuses. He's not interested in her plans, or in helping Rome. The next we see of him, he's fighting in the arena again, this time against a famous gladiator who's come out of retirement (Tigris of Gaul, played by Sven-Ole Thorsen) and four angry tigers. Yes. Tigers.
Maximus wins, again. At this point, Russell Crowe's scowl has racked up several gazillion points.
Commodus visits him again, and tries to get him angry. He gloats over the death of Maximus' wife and son, but Maximus doesn't take the bait. He simply says, "The time for honoring yourself will soon be at an end, highness."
After leaving the arena, Maximus' former assistant, Cicero (Tommy Flanagan), finds him, and gives him some small statues of his family. Maximus tells Cicero to come and find him in the near future (he's essentially telling him to show up at the gladiators' quarters so they can talk more).
Commodus is really, really angry with Maximus and the crowd. He knows he can't just kill Maximus. His man from the senate tells him a story about a special sea snake that lies in wait, even while its enemies take bites out of it. Commodus will do the same. He orders every senator followed in the meantime…because he's a paranoid, sweaty jerkbag.
Cicero visits Maximus and tells him that Maximus' soldiers (the men of his unit) are camped at Ostia, but would be ready to fight for him immediately. Maximus gives him a mission. Cicero flags down Lucilla, and tells her that Maximus will meet with her senator. Lucilla and Senator Gracchus visit Maximus. It's very hush-hush.
Maximus proposes a plan: buy his freedom so he can ride out to his men and return with an army to kill Commodus and restore republican rule. Gracchus's wary at first, but ultimately agrees to the plan. He knows there's really no other option—Commodus is basically sporting a forehead tattoo that reads "I am evil incarnate" at this point.
Proximo refuses to help Maximus. He thinks the plan won't work, given how knowledge Commodus is. You know: evil.
Shortly thereafter, Gracchus's arrested. Lucilla visits Maximus again, and tells him the plot must move forward immediately, because Commodus is starting to figure things out. She kisses Maximus, before departing.
While she is away visiting with Maximus, her son Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark) is back at the palace. Lucius is playing with a wooden sword, and when Commodus asks him what he's doing he says he's playing gladiator and playing the role of Maximus, the savior of Rome.
Commodus, his suspicion aroused, asks him who referred to him (Maximus) as the savior. He knows what's up. When Lucilla returns, Commodus lets her know that he knows that something fishy is up…and basically threatens to kill those dearest to her if she doesn't tell him what's going on.
She tells him everything offscreen. Boo, Lucilla.
Proximo visits Maximus, and lets him out of his cell. He's changed his mind, probably because Maximus told him the truth about who killed Marcus Aurelius. Maximus' gladiator friends assist in his escape, which is hampered by the arrival of Roman praetorians. Whoopsies.
Proximo's killed by them, and Maximus makes it outside the city walls. He sees Cicero on a horse. He calls out Maximus' name, and is then hung. Maximus rushes to save him…but it's too late. Cicero is shot with arrows, and Maximus is recaptured. (Shortest escape ever.)
Commodus visits him beneath the Colosseum, and tells him that they'll fight in the arena. Before the battle, Commodus stabs him in the back (literally: this guy is a snake) and orders Quintus (Tomas Arana) to cover up the wound.
Maximus and Commodus fight, with Maximus eventually killing him. Maximus, however, succumbs to his wounds. Before he dies, he orders Senator Gracchus reinstated, and expresses Marcus Aurelius' final wish: that Rome be a republic again.
Lucilla rushes down, and orders that he be honored as a soldier of Rome. He arrives in the afterlife and greets his wife and son.
It's not the world's happiest ending…but we're willing to bet that you'll be hitting the gym harder for a week or two after viewing it.