Our review of Gladiator (Blu-Ray), published September 10th, 2009, is also available.
"My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor Marcus Aurelius, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next."
Director Ridley Scott is the man who brought us such "modern classics" as Blade Runner and Alien, as well as popular favorites like Thelma and Louise. He has also ventured into the world of the historical epic, making the ill-fated 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Now he returns to that territory, this time taking on the Roman Empire in his latest blockbuster, Gladiator.
Facts of the Case
Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris—Unforgiven, Camelot, Mutiny on the Bounty) is nearing the end of his sixteen-year campaign to subdue the barbarians of Germania. His armies are commanded by the great general Maximus (Russell Crowe—L.A. Confidential, Romper Stomper, The Insider). Maximus is unique in that he is from Spain, one of the outer provinces of the Roman Empire, and has never even set foot in Rome. Despite this he has risen to a position of great responsibility, and has gained the trust of the Emperor himself.
Marcus Aurelius is also reaching the end of his life, and he knows it. He has decided that his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix—8MM, Inventing the Abbots, Parenthood) is too cruel and shallow to be Emperor, and chooses Maximus as his successor instead. Maximus does not want this position of power; he just wants to go home to his wife and son, his crops and fields. However, he reluctantly agrees to do his duty for Rome and his friend and leader Marcus Aurelius. Upon learning this, Commodus kills his father before anyone else is aware of his plans. Commodus orders Maximus executed, his family killed, and his home and possessions destroyed. Maximus escapes, but is gravely wounded and is soon captured by slave traders and taken to North Africa.
Once in North Africa, Maximus is sold to Proximo (Oliver Reed—Oliver!, The Three Musketeers, Women in Love). Proximo runs a stable of gladiators who fight in the provincial arenas. A former champion gladiator himself, he recognizes the talent in Maximus. When the decadent Commodus calls for 150 straight days of games to appease the masses and increase his own popularity, Proximo sees it as his big chance and brings a selection of his finest to Rome to fight in the Colosseum. Maximus grows in fame and stature through his success in the games, eventually gaining a following that rivals the Emperor himself. Soon he is involved in a web of intrigue involving the Senate, the Emperor's sister, and the very future of Rome itself.
Like the games it portrays, Gladiator is an impressive spectacle in its own right. Director Scott and his crew spared no expense in bringing the look and feel of the Roman Empire to life on the big screen. For the most part, the results are stunning. Battle scenes are violent, chaotic, and thrilling. The restored vision of ancient Rome is a wonder to behold. Scott's attention to detail, his use of subtle symbolism, and his construction of scenes all point to a skilled, effective director.
At the heart of the movie is Russell Crowe's Maximus. Crowe makes Maximus a believable person. We see several sides of the character, ranging from the brave and honorable general to the bitter slave to the savage gladiator. We feel his emotion at the death of his wife and son; we feel his determination and defiance in the face of the emperor who destroyed his life. However, perhaps the best moment in Crowe's performance comes early in the film, when Maximus is discussing his home with Marcus Aurelius. Crowe takes this stoic, heroic character and fills him with a mix of homesick longing and boyish giddiness when talking about the place and the family that he loves.
The other truly captivating performance in this movie comes from Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius. He captures the emperor as a philosopher, conqueror, ruler, and sometime tyrant who knows that he is nearing the end of his days and wants to see that the right thing is done for Rome after his death.
Other solid performances come from Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus; Connie Nielsen (Mission to Mars, Rushmore, The Devil's Advocate) as Lucilla, Commodus's sister; and Djimon Honsou (Amistad, Deep Rising, Stargate) as Juba, a gladiator who befriends Maximus. I would be remiss if I did not mention that this was Oliver Reed's last film; he died during the production and his final scenes were completed with the aid of some CGI wizardry. His Proximo is a wonderful scoundrel with a heart of gold. Also deserving special mention as always is action film mainstay Sven-Ole Thorsen (Conan the Barbarian, The Running Man, Kull the Conqueror) as "the only undefeated gladiator in Roman history." Granted, he doesn't really do a heck of a lot, but it's always good to see old Sven.
DreamWorks presents us with another excellent DVD presentation. Gladiator comes to us in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It is an anamorphic transfer. Overall the picture is excellent, but it is not without flaws. There are occasional instances of shimmer, usually in shiny objects like gold ornamentation on uniforms or clothing. Some scenes are quite grainy, and there are more film nicks and defects than I would have expected from such a recent movie. Dark and shadowy scenes are a mixed bag; those earlier in the movie tend to be a bit soft and muddy, while those later on look excellent. Colors are rich and faithfully rendered, especially the telltale reds and blacks. Picture clarity is impressive and sharp, with just a few instances of obvious edge enhancement. Overall this is a very good transfer, but not perfect.
The audio is presented in DTS 6.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby Surround 2.0. The DTS track is so sharp it is almost painful, especially in the opening battle scene in Germania. The noise of battle totally fills the room, and directional effects are excellent. Horses thunder through the room. Arrows don't so much whistle past your head as scream like F-18s. Hans Zimmer's powerful score surges through it all. This audio presentation is a real treat for the senses, and I think no one will be disappointed. The Dolby 5.1 track is very good as well, making great use of the entire sound system, but it suffers by comparison with the DTS track.
One of the key areas that prompted me to purchase this disc was the extensive selection of extra content. Due to the inclusion of both a Dolby 5.1 and a DTS soundtrack, this is a two-disc set, with the bulk of the extra material on disc two. Disc one contains a feature commentary by Director Ridley Scott, Director of Photography John Mathieson, and Editor Pietro Scalia. In a nice touch the commentary track has its own index, so that a viewer can search for a given topic in the commentary and go directly to the appropriate scene. The commentary by these three is very insightful and explains various choices that were made during filming, techniques that were used, and the process of putting it all together. In my opinion a commentary track is always the single most important extra that a DVD can have, and this one is very good.
The amount of extra content on disc two is impressive, even by DreamWorks
standards. Here is a list of all that is in store:
With a list of extra content like that, you can see why DreamWorks needed a second disc to hold it all. All told there is over four hours of extra content, and most of it is very worthwhile.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Gladiator emerged as one of the most successful films of 2000, and also one of the most over-praised. Many have hailed it as a "masterpiece," or worse yet as an "instant classic," whatever that means. While I enjoyed it, there were a number of flaws, mostly in the storyline. The most grievous of these flaws is in the ultimate resolution of the movie. I don't want to give too much away, but the climax just didn't ring true for me. I would have much preferred to see the plan between Maximus and Lucilla carried out; regardless of the outcome, it would have seemed more believable. It also would have been truer to the epic scope that Scott shot for with this movie and would have brought the Maximus character full circle to his logical conclusion.
I also found the Commodus character to be a bit more off-putting than was necessary. Scott states in his commentary track that he wanted to make Commodus evil but at least somewhat sympathetic or understandable. I tend to think that Scott and Co. blew their chance to accomplish that when they decided that Commodus should have…ahem, "unnatural desires" for his sister Lucilla. Frankly, once that sort of thing is established about a character, the whole "my father neglected me" angle doesn't really provide the necessary emotional mileage to make Commodus terribly sympathetic.
There are also some technical problems with the movie. Gladiator makes extensive use of CGI to recreate the city of Rome. Some of this CGI works very well and is completely convincing, but some of it is very obviously CGI. City scenes with ancient buildings and statues look very good, but there are a couple of fly-over shots of the Colosseum that are really bad. Also, many of the scenes within the Colosseum itself use smoke and dust to hide the fact that the special effects aren't quite up to par. Still, recreating the Colosseum and ancient Rome is not a small accomplishment, and these imperfections are the price we pay for some otherwise outstanding eye candy.
I have very few criticisms of the DVD package. While the piles and piles of extra goodies impressed me, I did notice that it was all stuff we had seen before in one form or another. There is nothing here that really uses the DVD format to its fullest potential. It would have been interesting to see something new and innovative, perhaps something interactive or something that used the "angle" function available on most DVD players. I know this is nitpicking, but if anyone is to take extra content to the next level, DreamWorks is a prime candidate.
While perhaps not the milestone film that many have made it out to be, Gladiator succeeds as entertainment. It has a bit more brains and a lot more heart than the average summer blockbuster, and is for the most part a satisfying way to spend a few hours. I enjoyed it but also found it somewhat disappointing; with a slightly less clichéd storyline it might have been truly great. Still, it is a good movie, the DVD presentation is very good, and it comes with a great collection of extra material. I have no problem recommending this movie for purchase or rental, whatever you prefer.
The movie and all involved are acquitted. DreamWorks once again is to be commended for an excellent DVD package.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Track
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