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review added: 11/9/00



Gladiator
Signature Selection - 2000 (2000) - DreamWorks/Universal (DreamWorks)

review by Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

Gladiator: Signature Selection Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A-/A-

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A/A+

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film
155 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:16:27, in chapter 14), dual-disc Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary (with director Ridley Scott, director of photography John Mathison and editor Pietro Scalia - with index), animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 EX, 2.0 and DTS 6.1 ES), subtitles: English

Disc Two: Supplemental Material
NR, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), HBO First Look: The Making of Gladiator featurette, Gladiator Games: Roman Blood Sport Learning Channel documentary, Hans Zimmer: Scoring Gladiator featurette, 11 deleted scenes plus Treasure Chest video of other unused footage edited to film music, storyboards for 8 major sequences and 4 deleted sequences, My Gladiator Journal text essay with pictures by Spencer Treat Clark, gallery of production photographs, teaser trailer, theatrical trailer, 4 TV spots, cast & crew bios, production notes, 3 Easter Eggs, animated film-themed menu screens with music


"He will bring them death, and they will love him for it."

There is a certain kind of film that I am, almost invariably, unable to resist - the epic story. It usually starts with a simple, noble character of humble origins, who suddenly loses everything that is most dear to him/her. Then the character finds him or herself thrust into the center of an epic conflict or struggle - some kind of dire situation whose outcome will have consequences far greater than they can possibly imagine. For such a character, the choice is simple - rise to meet the challenge or fall in defeat. Heros are born in this way. So too are the best movies. Many of my favorite films share this common thread - Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia, Braveheart... the list goes on. There's just no better drama than a good epic struggle.

So here's a epic tale for you - a noble Roman army general named Maximus has just won his greatest victory against the Barbarian hordes in the North, ensuring the continued security of Rome for ages to come. The battle has taken years to fight, and all Maximus wants to do is return home to farm his land and be with his wife and son. But his dying friend (and Emperor) has one last task for Maximus. Corruption is running rampant in the Empire and the Emperor's son Commodus is not an honorable man. Fearing the worst for Rome upon his death, the Emperor asks Maximus to succeed him, and to eventually return Rome to its people - to make it a democracy again. Meanwhile, Commodus learns of his father's intentions and, feeling betrayed, he kills his father and takes control before the Emperor's plans for Maximus were widely known. Commodus then demands Maximus' pledge of loyalty and, when the general refuses, he has Maximus stripped of his command and taken away to be executed. Maximus escapes, but Commodus' wrath falls heavy upon his family before he can save them. With nothing left to lose, Maximus soon finds himself sold into slavery as a gladiator. But in this seemingly desperate situation, Maximus finds an opportunity for vengeance. For it seems that the new Emperor is holding gladiatorial games in the Coliseum in Rome to engender the love of his subjects. And the very best gladiators are given an audience with the Emperor himself.

See what I mean? How could a story like that not grab you? Did I mention the film stars the always terrific Russell Crowe as Maximus? And this particular gladiator movie is directed by none other than Ridley Scott, the cinematic genius behind such stylish and influential films as Blade Runner and Alien. How frickin' cool is that? Very frickin' cool - that's how cool. Gladiator exploded into theaters and became the second highest grossing film of this past year (only Mission: Impossible 2 took in more money). And if you listen to the buzz in Hollywood, Gladiator is also the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture. Given this year's other lackluster offerings, I certainly haven't seen anything that would come close to challenging it.

Director Ridley Scott's amazing attention to detail and his command of cinematic style and process have never served him better. Given time, I think Gladiator will come to rank among his best works in the eyes of fans. The production design here is superb - the glory of Rome at the height of its power simply comes to life on screen. The cast supporting Crowe is terrific, and includes the likes of Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus and Richard Harris as the Emperor, as well as Oliver Reed (who died during this production), Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou and Connie Nielsen. The script is well written and is easy to lose yourself in. And the gladiator action is intense and unrelenting, while managing to leave a lot for your own imagination to fill in. As violent as this film is, you don't see a lot of actual blood. I'd say this is on par with Braveheart, if even a little less bloody.

That's not to say that this is a perfect movie. First of all, the opening battle scene suffers from a little too much Spielberg-itis. You know what I mean - it's been heavily processed in post production to look a lot like the opening D-Day scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Given that this is a DreamWorks film, that's no coincidence. Whereas in Braveheart, you get a real sense of geography and flow to the battle scenes, Gladiator gets a little too abstract for its own good at times. The film also doesn't humanize a couple of its characters enough. The Emperor's children, Commodus and Lucilla, suffer the most. Commodus isn't given enough development to really make him an effective villain (just WAIT until you see the deleted scenes on this disc - hold that thought) and Lucilla isn't given enough humanity to make you empathize with her as much as the film would like you to. But those are small criticisms. Taken on the whole, Gladiator is a passionate and gripping film. And surprise - the filmmakers did something right, 'cause this prototypical "guy" flick, is a big favorite among many women too.

Let me just say it right now - you're gonna love this 2-disc DVD set. Give me this, and Disney's Ultimate Toy Box, and just lock me in a tricked-out home theater - that's all I need to be a happy camper for days. Starting with Disc One, the anamorphic widescreen video is terrific. The contrast is excellent, with good deep blacks and sufficient shadow detail. The color scheme of the film is muted, but the transfer renders it accurately at all times. Rome has definitely never looked so glorious onscreen. The print is nicely clean and you'll see little in the way of dust and dirt. The film does look a little too soft at times, and a little edgy at others - light edge enhancement or noise reduction is apparent on occasion. But, all said, I think most will be extremely happy with this video. The sound is even better. You get your choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 (EX compatible) or DTS 6.1 Discreet, as well as a Dolby 2.0 Surround mix. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is surprisingly atmospheric, with very active rear channels, a nicely wide forward soundstage and plenty of low frequency. Dialogue is clear and well centered, and Hans Zimmer's aggressive and haunting score is beautifully presented in the mix. As expected, the DTS track is even more expansive and natural sounding, squeezing out every last ounce of subtlety for you to enjoy. Just listen to the wisp of arrows in the opening sequence, or the metallic ringing of swords beings sharpened in Proximo's dungeon. Whichever track you choose, this is great film audio on DVD. Also available on Disc One is a first-rate audio commentary track with director Ridley Scott, director of photography John Mathison and editor Pietro Scalia. It's indexed by topic and you'll be fascinated listening as the trio discusses the psychology of character, historical accuracy and the "logic" of the fictional world. Scott is, I think, the best sculptor of fictional film worlds around, and he proves it here. The guy's amazing. There's no better director working today in my mind.

So that's Disc One. Disc Two will make you happy as well. Let me start with the best part - included here are some 11 deleted scenes - all with optional Ridley Scott commentary - and a very cool 5-minute Treasure Chest video, featuring even more unused footage cut to music specifically for this DVD by Scalia. Did I mention the music is a piece of Zimmer's score that doesn't appear on the soundtrack CD? These deleted scenes amount to some 25 minutes of footage in all, and a few are really terrific. There are two which involve the character of Commodus, that I absolutely can't believe were cut. They really round out his character and would have only added 3 or 4 minutes to the film's running time. One in particular ("The Execution") is completely frickin' cool. I don't want to spoil it for you - just watch it for yourself and see if you don't agree with me. It's an amazing scene.

Next, we get a trio of documentaries. These are no fluff pieces. The first is HBO First Look: The Making of Gladiator and it runs about 25 minutes. It's actually one of the best First Looks I've seen and includes great interview clips with the cast & crew. You also get a 20-minute piece called Scoring Gladiator, where we get a look into the creative mind of the film's composer, Hans Zimmer. He talks about searching for the themes that will convey the emotions in the film, and his fear that he'll never be able to compose another great score. It's fascinating. So too is the third piece, a 50-minute Learning Channel documentary, called Gladiator Games: Roman Blood Sport. The producers interview historians and experts on the real-life gladiators of old, visit the ruins of real arenas and were even allowed to shoot on the Gladiator sets, using props from the film, to create realistic reenactments of battle. Once you start watching, I don't think you'll be able to stop. Also on Disc Two are extensive storyboards for 8 major sequences in the film and 4 deleted or unused sequences. You get a stills gallery with dozens of behind-the-scenes images from the production. There are several pages of production notes and detailed cast & crew bios. The film's teaser trailer and theatrical trailer are here, along with 4 rarely seen TV spots for the film. You also get a nifty little text essay, called My Gladiator Journal, written by young Spencer Treat Clark (who played Lucius). It's basically a day-by-day diary of his experiences on the production (illustrated by photos), starting from the day he got off the plane for filming until the final wrap party. It's surprisingly interesting, and gives you a perspective on the making of an epic film that you usually don't have access to. And all of these materials are accessed via tasteful and classy animated menu screens, using imagery and music from the film. One last note - there are 3 Easter eggs hidden in the menus on Disc Two. One is a credits page and the other two are brief (but cool) video clips. I'll say only this... a chicken will rise.

Gladiator is a great film, and now you can thoroughly enjoy it at home in a great 2-disc DVD edition. The video and audio quality should satisfy hard-core home theater buffs and film lovers will appreciate the variety and comprehensiveness of the extras. Can you imagine the pitch session for this film? "We wanna make this kick-ass gladiator film with Russell Crowe and Richard Harris. We're gonna have lots of combat and we're gonna use CGI to bring the Roman Coliseum back to life. Oh... and Ridley Scott's gonna direct." Any studio executive that doesn't wet their pants upon hearing those words should be fired. But that's just my two cents. Enjoy!

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com




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