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Gladiator DVD Review

Gladiator

August 25, 2003

Director: Ridley Scott,
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, Tomas Arana, David Hemmings, Ralph Moeller,

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DVD Review

With every successful film comes a torrent of derision from the press, Gladiator was no exception. Mauled for its plodding script, wafer thin plot and poor acting. But was any of this warranted?

Well yes actually, but only the part about the script. The story is one of classic heroism, and the performances were quite simply outstanding. I was amazed to have read reviews that criticise the cast, Messrs. Crowe and Phoenix in particular for being unable to reproduce the style of classic epic movies such as Spartacus and Quo Vadis?. They claim that the epic as a film genre is dead as we don’t posses the acting talent to rival the likes of Richard Burton, Kirk Douglas and Peter Ustinov.

True? If Russell Crowe doesn’t have screen presence and a endless range of emotions then quite simply who does?
Joaquin Phoenix – Emperor Commodus was attacked for being too young and appearing out of his depth, but then that’s what the Emperor Commodus was like, as were many Roman Emperors. Given too much power at too young an age, they were not commanding men merely boys playing at being men.

The film is nothing short of spectacular, succeeding in all aspects of what can be considered the ideal cinematic experience, save for the script. General Maximus, fresh from his victory in Germania and charged with succeeding the dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius simply wants to go home to his wife and son in Spain. The Emperor’s immoral son Commodus Joaquin Phoenix, unhappy to let Maximus take what he believes to be his destiny, murders his father and orders Maximus’ execution. Suffice to say that Maximus escapes, killing one or two Praetorian guards, and races home to save his family. Unfortunately Germania to Spain by horseback takes some time, and he arrives too late to save them. Picked up as a slave, sold to a gladiatorial promoter and thrown into an arena Maximus is forced to fight for his life, and fight he does.

Maximus is told that if he kills enough people he will be given a chance to return to Rome and stand before the new Emperor, who murdered his family. Cue lots of killing. Everything comes down to a Coliseum showdown with the Emperor himself as Maximus finally gets his chance at vengeance.
Russell Crowe deals a little death towards the Praetorian guards charged with executing him in one of the film’s most stylishly staged scenes. As one Praetorian struggles to remove his sword from it’s sheath Crowe mutters in the most chilling of tones ‘The frost …sometimes causes the blade to stick’ before slicing the front of his face off.

It would be prudent to mention the violent nature of this film. Despite it’s romantic golden cover and it’s seemingly universal appeal, this is a very violent film. Heads, arms and legs are cut off at random as Russell Crowe wades into gladiators as though he were harvesting crops.

The incredibly attractive, so I’ve been told, Russell Crowe sneers and leers his way through a succession of uninspired dialogue lines and rip-roaring combat scenes as the Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius. Testament to Crowe as an actor and as a screen presence that even though the dialogue is plodding and should have been cut down at the script stage he still holds the screen with an iron grasp, tear your eyes away from him if you can. This is the finest performance from the New Zealand born Aussie to date, and in a career littered with fine performances (LA Confidential, The Insider) that’s some achievement.

But what of the director, how has this movie slotted into the resume’ of Ridley Scott? After the debacle that was ‘GI Jane’, Ridley has finally produced a film worthy of his name, perhaps not in the same league as Alien and Bladerunner Gladiator is without doubt Scott’s finest movie for nearly 20 years. This film proves that the epic as a genre isn’t dead, although it does set a very high precedent for any movies that dare to follow.

Sadly Oliver Reed died before the film was completed causing the studio to resort to a cgi Ollie. This decision was ridiculed by the critics, claiming the money was wasted and they should have spent it on the script, and the computer generated thesp looked poor and was easy to spot. I noticed it only on my third viewing, critics criticise, movie makers make movies.

I first encountered the hype of Gladiator at the Cannes film festival in May 2000. Universal were giving it the blanket coverage treatment worthy of a film of it’s size. Naturally I sneaked into their hotel room at the Carlton and helped myself to some free Gladiator goodies including a soundtrack album which I never played and a rather fetching pin badge. I drew the line at the George Cloony ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou?’ soap. His face lathering my anatomy was not something that appealed to me, although an Australian colleague would faint at the prospect. I left quickly as my presence was noticed and, not being a famous American actor, was not appreciated either.

Since the creation of the DVD there have been a few discs to push the format to it’s limit, The Matrix, Ghostbusters, Men In Black to name but three. How does Ridley Scott’s sword and sandal epic measure up?

Extremely well actually.

We’re treated to the standard Americanised documentary with all the usual ‘this is the most spectacular movie ever made’ narration elements, as well as some Russell Crowe anecdotes on what severe injuries he suffered. All very standard. A second documentary on the history of gladiatorial combat proves more informative, delving deeply into Roman history, literature and myth. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s well worth a watch.

Massive chunks of the film are presented in story-board form for you to marvel at, thankfully without the attached dialogue. Some of these sketches really are beautiful taking an almost anime approach to the movie. A massive stills gallery featuring portraits of all the stars and chronicling the production of the film also delights, although there aren’t too many of Russell.

Indeed the list of features is a long one, all packed onto the one disc, but the real gem appears to be the deleted scenes section, which aren’t just rough scenes cut together for the DVD, these were edited, polished and scored. Further testament perhaps to the fact that the script should have been cut down prior to shooting. Some of these scenes are quite harrowing such as a mass execution of Christians by the lions that Maximus must watch, before himself entering the arena.

All of these deleted scenes feature a commentary from Ridley on why they were cut, the reason for most is simply a question of pacing. This brings up the point that Gladiator was never going to truly be an epic if its running time was being compromised by the studio. Had Ridley left the scenes in, staying faithful to the original script and compromising between epic and what appeared to be an attempt to get close to it, Gladiator may have truly been a superb film.

There is one problem with the disc, the duel layer setup used on films of this length triggers a pause as it switches over. Not uncommon really, most films have this, except that Gladiator changes layers in the middle of a scene. This was completely unnecessary as the film faded out less than four minutes earlier, surely a better time to switch layers? This is however only a small point in what is otherwise a truly excellent disc.

Despite not knowing whether it’s an epic or not, Gladiator is the most spectacular thing you’ll see outside of my bathroom and it excels as a DVD. Along with Titanic it becomes one of those films that, love it or loathe it, you simply have to own if you’re serious about movies.

The incredibly attractive, so I’ve been told, Russell Crowe sneers and leers his way through a succession of uninspired dialogue lines and rip-roaring combat scenes as the Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius. Testament to Crowe as an actor and as a screen presence that even though the dialogue is plodding and should have been cut down at the script stage he still holds the screen with an iron grasp, tear your eyes away from him if you can. This is the finest performance from the New Zealand born Aussie to date, and in a career littered with fine performances (LA Confidential, The Insider) that’s some achievement.

Darren has enjoyed an interest in film for many years, studying the subject at Newport Film School where he worked on the film ‘Cop on the Edge IX: Prelude to Justice‘ in a directing and acting capacity. The official site can be enjoyed here. Darren setup WhatDVD.Net in 2003 to further his love of films and to write passionately about the movies he enjoys, and about those that he doesn’t.

Although his day-to-day activities mean that he now has less time to review movies than he would ideally prefer, he still tries to review new releases, and DVDs from his extensive collection, whenever possible.
view all DVD reviews by Darren Jamieson

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Rating: 93%

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