Maximus reluctantly fights in local tournaments, his combat skills helping him win matches and gain popularity. He befriends two other gladiators: Hagen, a German; and Juba, a Numidian. Proximo reveals to Maximus that he was once a gladiator who was freed by Marcus Aurelius, and advises him to \"win the crowd\" to win his freedom.
In an effort to win back public approval, Commodus challenges Maximus to a duel in the Colosseum. He stabs Maximus in the lung before the match to gain an advantage. Despite his injuries, Maximus disarms Commodus. After the Praetorian Guard refuse to aid him, Commodus unsheathes a hidden knife; Maximus overpowers Commodus and drives the knife into his throat, killing him. Before Maximus succumbs to his wounds, he asks for political reforms, for his gladiator allies to be freed, and for Senator Gracchus to be reinstated. As he dies, he has a vision where he reunites with his wife and son. His friends and allies honor him as \"a soldier of Rome\", at Lucilla's behest, and carry his body out of the arena.
The performances and the cast were praised by critics, with Crowe and Phoenix being considered by critics as the main highlights. Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter said Crowe \"solidly anchors this epic-scale gladiator movie - the first in nearly four decades - by using his burly frame and expressive face to give dimension to what might otherwise have been comic book heroics.\" In his positive review for The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgensten said that Crowe \"doesn't use tricks in this role to court our approval. He earns it the old-fashioned way, by daring to be quiet, if not silent, and intensely, implacably strong,\" and that the film \"rests on Mr. Crowe's armor-clad shoulders, and he carries it remarkably well.\" Empire's Ian Nathan, giving the film four stars, wrote that Phoenix displayed \"gleeful hamminess\" in his performance. Writing for the film, Nathan expressed that \"while it's all grand opera, and driven by sweeping gestures and pompous, overwritten dialogue, it is prone to plain silliness - especially in granting us the big showdown at the close. But the sheer dynamism of the action, coupled with Hans Zimmer's lavish score and the forcefield of Crowe, still makes this a fiercesome competitor in the summer movie stakes.\" Geoff Andrew of Time Out praised the film, saying that \"the cast is strong (notably Nielsen as Commodus's vacillating sister, and the late Oliver Reed, unusually endearing as a gladiator owner), the pacing lively, and the sets, swordplay and Scud catapults impressive. Roger Ebert, who was otherwise critical in his two-star review, praised Nielsen for having the most depth in the entire film. On the other hand, Camille Paglia, who called the film \"boring, badly shot and suffused with sentimental p.c. rubbish,\" criticized Crowe and Phoenix's performances 153554b96e