Plot: What’s it about?
After yet another win in a crucial battle for Rome, General Maximus (Russell Crowe) is more than ready to return home, where his wife and young son await his presence. But his emperor, Marcus Aurelis (Richard Harris) has other plans for him and asks him to take the reigns of the empire, as he is old and will soon be dead. Maximus soon leaves to think over this offer and after him, Marcus’ son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) enters to meet with his father. After he is told the news of Maximus becoming the next leader, Commodus breaks down and implores his father to reconsider, but he doesn’t. So, Commodus murders him and then assumes power, as well as the service of Maximus. When he refuses to pay tribute to the new leader, Maximus is taken into the woods to be executed, but he escapes. He charges toward his home and all he can think of is his family, which he wishes to see very much. But when he finally reaches his home, he discovers his wife and son have been killed, then put on display for all to see. In total depression and madness, Maximus ventures into the deserts and passes out, when slave traders pick him up and make him one of their workers. He is soon sold to a promoter, who plans to profit by his death. But when his skills surpass all the others, he is given the chance to travel to Rome, where he would be within striking distance of Commodus. When he reaches Rome and enters the field of battle, will he survive long enough to get his chance for vengeance?
After Braveheart took Best Picture at the Academy Awards, you knew more films along those lines would come. We’ve seen The Emperor & The Assassin, The Messenger, and now, Gladiator. I have no problems with epics, as I love the grand scale of them and they usually pack a visual punch, but this one mirrors Braveheart a little too much for me. I did like this movie though, just not as much as I expected to and not as much as I liked Braveheart. But Gladiator has more flash, with expensive computer generated special effects and rich production design. I like the costumes, locations, set design, and other creative elements present here, but the special effects done with the computer stand out, even on the small screen. You can overlook them if you try, but that still brings down the whole experience of ancient Rome, at least to me. I was also let down by the emotional content and character development, which was lacking a lot in the end. We ended up with stereotypical characters in a high budget movie, which happens too much these days. But Gladiator is still worth a look, even if only for the visual feast that it is, as well as some of the better battle sequences. I don’t think this movie is the modern classic come claim, but it is a fun movie to watch and add to the “epics” section of my collection.
At the helm of this film is Ridley Scott, whose direction seems to be a mixture of good and bad. I have always had my doubts about Scott since G.I. Jane, when he started to use shaky jump cuts in his action driven scenes. Now this does make the scene confusing, but not in a good sense, we’re just confused as to why the camera has to be so out of control. I know that battle scenes, such as the opening sequence of this movie, should seem chaotic to some extent, but Scott takes this too far and makes his action too hard to follow. We know something has happened, but we’re given little else and that strikes me as poor direction. But Scott handles the non action sequences well, which sort of balances the whole scheme out in the end. Other Scott films include Alien, Black Rain, Thelma & Louise, Blade Runner, White Squall, and Legend. The cast is a mixed bag as well, most of them do well enough, but are given rather simplistic characters to work with. The main workers include Richard Harris (Unforgiven, Patriot Games), Djimon Hounsou (Amistad, Stargate), Oliver Reed (The Big Sleep, Condorman), Spencer Treat Clark (Arlington Road), Derek Jacobi (Dead Again, Henry V), Joaquin Phoenix (To Die For, 8MM), Connie Nielsen (Mission To Mars, Rushmore), and of course, Russell Crowe (Romper Stomper, The Insider).
Video: How does it look?
Gladiator is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. This is an excellent transfer and since the film has some unusual visual schemes, I was surprised this transfer was able to keep up the pace. The film’s various color schemes come off well here, from the metallic laden hues, glowing amber sequences, and even the more natural scopes, it all looks just as it should here. I saw no smears, discoloration, bleeding, or other errors, while flesh tones seemed warm and consistent as well. The contrast showed no problems either, black levels are dead on and detail is always high, even in the darkest of scenes. It just doesn’t get much better than this, a perfect score for a reference level visual transfer.
Audio: How does it sound?
This disc sports 5.1 surround tracks in DTS and Dolby Digital, with both offering an excellent and reference level audio experience. As usual, I think the edge goes to the DTS option, but I don’t think you’ll be let down with either of these tracks. The surrounds will be pulsing from pillar to post with these mixes, which immerses the viewer and really puts you right in the middle of the action. Of course, the action based sequences make for more active sessions, but even the slower paced scenes provide ample audio presence. You can hear the slight audio touches as well, even when the powerful elements are in full effect, which is very impressive. The musical score is well presented in the mixes also, very expansive and allowed to flow throughout the system, which means it is always effective. No issues with the dialogue either, the vocals seem clean, clear, and crisp at all times. The disc also houses a 2.0 surround track, as well as English captions and subtitles.
Supplements: What are the extras?
This is the first two disc edition from Dreamworks and man, what a release to kick off the tradition with. The bulk of the supplements reside on the second disc, but the first disc contains an audio commentary track, which is worth discussing. The track features director Ridley Scott, cinematographer John Mathieson, and editor Pietro Scalia, all of whom have a lot to say about the film and production. They discuss some of the challenges faced while making the film, how characters and story elements were created, how the film’s visuals were achieved, and many other topics as well. A much better track than I expected and without a doubt, one fans of the film will not want to miss.
The second disc is loaded with goodies, all of which are worth at least a look before moving on. An excellent documentary titled Roman Blood Sport gives an in depth look at the history of gladiators, which enhances the movie’s events when you watch it again. This piece runs almost an hour and is a real treat in itself, I am very pleased it was included on this release. Next is a general behind the scenes featurette on the film, which runs about twenty-five minutes and contains interviews, behind the scenes footage, and other goodies. I liked the interviews and shots of the production design team, but the rest was simple fluff and should have been left on the cutting room floor, to make room for more good stuff. The third piece focuses on Hans Zimmer and his score for the film, in a twenty minute featurette also found on this disc. This was a very interesting piece in all respects, though I wish it were longer and allowed Zimmer more time to comment. I think these three pieces offer a unique look into this material, as we learn about the musical score, the production of the film, and the real life story behind gladiators, very cool stuff indeed.
I was pleased to find some deleted scenes included, which were a little limited, but still worth a look. As you watch, you can choose to hear comments from director Ridley Scott, or just watch the scenes with their original audio. I think Scott’s comments are worth a listen, as he explains why certain pieces simply had to removed from the film’s final version. You can also watch a seven minute montage of cut scenes, which run while some of Zimmer’s score is played. A special journal from Spencer Treat Clark is found here as well, which offers his thoughts during the production, complete with a brief photo record. This is a unique feature and one that I’d like to see again, I am glad Dreamworks has provided it on this disc. Some storyboards, a selection of still photos, theatrical trailers, television spots, talent files, and production notes have also been packed onto this disc.