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GLADIATOR

Review by Alex Haberstroh

Stars:  Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris
Director:  Ridley Scott
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, English 2.0 Surround, DTS 6.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  DreamWorks
Features:  See Review
Length:  155 Minutes
Release Date:  November 21, 2000

Film: ****

Those who know Director Ridley Scott’s work realize he is a master behind the lens.   Hailed by many as masterpieces in their respective genres, Scott’s films like Alien, Blade Runner, and Thelma and Louise, all were given great accolades by both critics and theatergoers.  Yet Scott made some bad choices, and his later works like 1492: Conquest of Paradise and G.I. Jane were both horrible flops, leaving many critics to wonder: had Ridley Scott lost his edge?

Scott’s decision to make Gladiator was a somewhat daunting task: how could he make a movie that combined not only the grandeur of past cinema with modern day CGI, but also presented a truly credible and emotionally moving story?  Not since 1960 with Spartacus had a film of this nature been done and many critics wondered when Gladiator came out if Scott had exorcised his past demons.  He has.

In this movie, Scott returns brilliantly behind the lens and once again proves to the viewer that he is still one of the greatest visual directors in the history of filmmaking.  From the very first scene in the battle-scarred wilderness of Germania to the climatic conclusion, the viewer is overwhelmed with the feeling of scope and greatness.

The movie itself features many of the most powerful forces of human nature; lust for power, ambition, betrayal, loyalty, love, and the unquenchable human spirit.  When Maximus (Crowe), the favored Roman general of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Harris), discovers that his beloved Emperor has been murdered by the Emperor’s own son, Commudus (Phoenix), Maximus refuses to pledge fealty to the new Emperor, and Commudus orders his death.  Rushing home too late to save his wife and son from Commudus’ soldiers, Maximus collapses, and is found by Moroccan slave traders who sell him to “gladiator trainer” Proximo (Reed).  At first refusing to fight, he surprises both Proximo and the crowd by being one of the best gladiators ever, sending him to the Coliseum in Rome, where 150 straight days of gladiatorial games are being held by Commudus in honor of his father.  Maximus realizes this can be his chance.

The film’s triumph is due not only to Scott’s wonderful direction but also the equally powerful performances of the cast.  Gladiator is truly Russell Crowe’s breakout role, following his highly praised performances in the Oscar nominated films L.A. Confidential, and The Insider.  Crowe adds not only genuineness, but also tenderness to the Roman general Maximus, a man who doesn’t want to fight, but is forced to at every turn.  An equally impressive performance comes from Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Commudus masterfully.  You can feel not only his anger and fear but also the madness of a man who actually believes he is a God.  Finally, the supportive acting in this cast was well done starting with relative newcomer Connie Nielsen, giving a believable performance as Lucillia, the sister and love interest of Commudus.   Irish born actor Richard Harris, is terrifically cast as the wizened and dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius as well, and finally the performance of Oliver Reed as Proximo, is a wonderfully cast final bow to his fans (sadly, he died in the making of the film).

Finally, besides a gripping story, fantastic directing, and superb acting, the film would still be missing a note if it didn’t contain the emotionally moving score of Hanz Zimmer.  While not familiar with his early work, I became a fan after hearing his incredibly emotional music in The Prince of Egypt.  Zimmer is truly a third and very ubiquitous presence throughout the film besides the director and actors, at one point moving the viewer to elation; at another, to tears.

Video ****

I’m just glad George Lucas didn’t direct this film because then we’d have to watch this beautifully shot film in VHS pan & scan (shudder).  Thankfully every second of Gladiator is shown with both finesse and clarity that can only come from anamorphic treatment!  Bravo DreamWorks!  Whether in the dark and muddy fields of Germania, the brown sands of Morocco, or the wondrous Roman Coliseum glistening in the sun, this transfer can be described simply as stellar (Now if only my friends wouldn’t have to stop the film constantly to fiddle with the damn aspect ratio).              

Audio ****

There are three formats included here, starting with the reference quality DD 5.1.  Every sound is picked up, no matter how subtle.  From the arrows and trebuchets firing in the forests of Germania, to the crowd roaring all around you in the Coliseum, the sound plays an important role in getting the viewer totally enveloped in the film.  Also included was a DTS ES mix that makes its premiere on the Gladiator disc.  Providing six discrete channels of sound, the mix provides yet again a fuller soundstage than its DD 5.1 colleague, which I noticed especially with the trebuchets, which moved more subtly from speaker to speaker.  Finally, as I mentioned before, Hanz Zimmer’s score constantly flows throughout the room, funneling not only through the surrounds but also generously portioned in the front soundstage as well.  Rounding out the audio is a Dolby English 2.0 surround.

Features ****

DreamWorks’ “Signature Selection” discs are always a pinnacle of excellence, including an incredible range of not only supplements, but also providing Anamorphic enhanced discs with often both DD 5.1 and DTS tracks, making them one of my most favorite studios to review discs for.  So does Gladiator measure up to the “Signature Selection” hype?  It does. 

Gladiator is divided into two discs, the first disc containing the film and the second “Bonus Materials.”  Included with the film on the first disc is a wonderfully informative Ridley Scott Commentary.  Needless to say, those who have the Alien DVD will know what a great job Scott does in providing a wide range of information on his commentaries, what he was trying to accomplish with each scene, and finally who contributed what to them.  On the “Bonus Materials” disc were twelve deleted scenes that I believed should have stayed in the film, but had to be cut for time purposes.  Also included was a fascinating 20-minute interview with composer Hanz Zimmer who discusses at great length his selections of certain scores for the movie as well as the highly educational Gladiator Games: Roman Blood Sport, an interesting prospective of why the games originally began and why they finally ended after over 400 years.  The disc also includes the Making of Gladiator as well as a highly detailed slide show of concept art and storyboards, two theatrical trailers, four TV spots, production notes, filmmaker bios, a photo gallery, and finally, an in-depth journal written by Spencer Treat Clark, the boy who played Lucius, which was kind of long and cutesy but had a few interesting tidbits of info peppered throughout.

Summary:

A serious contender for Best Picture, Gladiator is a brilliant film to be experienced by all.  Exploding onto the DVD world with reference quality audio, video, and a boatload of supplements, Gladiator will make you truly feel like you’re in the Coliseum.  DreamWorks once again proves they’re king of the DVD ring!