This is an Epic with a capital "E", that's for sure. Swords, and tigers, and blood, oh my! Actually, a lot of blood. Muddy armies hacking each other to bits (literally), people cut in half, penetrating arrows, and watch for the double-sword decapitation ("Aaaahhh!" gasps the audience in appreciation). I don't think I've been so conscious of such primal, muscular violence (hand-to-hand gore, as opposed to people being blown apart by impersonal bullets) since Braveheart.
But Gladiator attempts to balance it with a lot of talk, mournful longing for family, and even spirituality. Whenever the soundtrack swells with the gorgeous, haunting singing of my personal musical goddess Lisa Gerrard (from Dead Can Dance), and the camera focuses on our hero Russell Crowe (as studly general/slave/gladiator Maximus) well, that is the cue for the audience to feel all the suppressed emotions that don't quite register on his stolid and grim face. "Awww..." we all say in concerned recognition.
OK, I have to say it: The soundtrack of a film should not be needed to convey unspoken emotions... whether it be with swelling music, or much worse, a cheesy song that has lyrics to explain what is going on while we're watching. A soundtrack can emphasize what is going on, but in the case of Gladiator, I felt that the filmmakers whored my beloved Lisa Gerrard to create a profound spiritual depth that the film did not deserve. There. Now I've said it.
But despite that gripe, I did not hate Gladiator. It is certainly a notch above your standard summer movie. The photography was actually quite stunning, and there were several computer animated scenes of ancient Rome that were breathtaking (especially our first glimpse of the Colosseum... the "camera" sweeping in with a bird's-eye view over the streets and into the stadium). The action scenes were kind of herky-jerky, as though the filmmakers removed every third frame of film or something, but it worked I thought... made everything more urgent and chaotic.
The acting is quite fine all-around. The leads all make a lasting impression, and no one embarrasses themselves. Crowe, as our hero, has an understated nobility, and despite the slight cheesiness of the soft-focus flashbacks of his family, you can't help but feel for him. Joaquin Phoenix, as Evil Emperor Commodus, is the crowd-pleasing, temper-tantrum throwing, inept leader, who of course has a venomous hatred of Maximus (for reasons that don't really matter, but it keeps the plot moving!). And Connie Nielsen (do we ever really catch her character's name? does it matter?) is Commodus' sister, the smart sibling, who looks like she is constantly full of regret and longing, and I believe wears successively more and more complicated outfits in order to thwart her creepy emperor brother's sexual advances ("Ewww!" goes the audience).
Though I don't think Gladiator is anywhere near a masterpiece (seems that there are lots of rabid fans of this film), it certainly is a notch above most action movies.