|Gladiator (2-Disc Collector's Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 21 November 2000|
Giant jars of blazing oil slam into trees, inundating the warriors below with liquid fire. War machines fire arrows the size of spears, shishkabobbing men in fur cloaks. Gladiators dressed as minotaurs slam spiked balls into the heads of their opponents. Men on foot are forced to battle armor-clad charioteers. Tigers leap from beneath the floor of the Colosseum in ancient Rome and claw at our desperate hero. And 'Gladiator' is great fun between the astonishing action as well.
Directed by Ridley Scott ('Alien,' 'Blade Runner'), 'Gladiator' is the first big-scale Hollywood epic about ancient Rome since THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE in 1964 -- and the two cover exactly the same period of Roman history, though this is more a coincidence than anything else. The story of 'Gladiator' extends from just prior to the death of the great emperor Marcus Aurelius to the death of his son and successor, the dissolute tyrant Commodus.
As written by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson, the focus in 'Gladiator' is on the fictional General Maximus (Russell Crowe), who is leading the Roman army to a great victory over the barbarians of Germania. The elderly philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is on the scene; he and Maximus are as close as father and son -- but Marcus' real son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), arrives after the battle, even the war, is over, a fact noted by his father. Commodus is corrupt and decadent; Marcus does not want to name him his successor. He wants to revert the Roman Empire to the Roman Republic, and wants to appoint Maximus the protector of Rome. But Maximus longs to return to his beautiful farm home and his wife and son.
Almost accidentally, the greedily ambitious Commodus smothers his father to death, and immediately orders the death of Maximus. Commodus' sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) despises her brother, who has incest on his mind, and loves Maximus -- they once had an affair -- but she knows political power all too well, and can do nothing to help Maximus.
Maximus is not that easy to kill; he dispatches his would-be killers, and rides madly across Europe, trying to reach his home in Spain before Commodus' assassins -- but he's too late; his home is burned, and his wife and son have been crucified. Hardly wanting to live himself, and badly wounded, he winds up a slave in a Roman city in North Africa, the property of fierce ex-gladiator Proximo (Oliver Reed). When the dispirited Maximus is thrust into the arena, the great warrior emerges again, and he becomes a famous gladiator known only as The Spaniard. His fame and those of his fellow gladiators lead Proximo to take them to Rome to battle in the Colosseum itself. But Maximus has only one desire: to have his revenge on Commodus.
'Gladiator' was a major hit in theaters, and has become the largest-selling disc so far in the short history of DVDs. And no wonder -- if not a great movie, 'Gladiator' is certainly great entertainment.
The buzz about the movie centered mostly on the excellent special effects that bring the ancient world to life, and the realism and violence of the battles in the arenas. However, the hottest aspect of the movie turned out to be Russell Crowe. Though he gives a somewhat one-note performance -- forehead-furrowed but sensitive intensity -- over the course of the film, he covers a wide emotional range. He's always believable, always the center of every scene in which he appears; it's his first real movie-star performance. While he helped turn the movie into a hit, the movie turned him into an authentic star.
Joaquin Phoenix he has to be human enough that we can sympathize with his deep disappointment that his father favors Maximus; certainly the script provides enough reasons to hate Commodus. Phoenix keeps the character's extravagance within limits, and makes the improbable character convincing. (In real life, Commodus, who reigned for 13 years, was even weirder.) Connie Nielsen has her best Hollywood part as Lucilla; it's the most complex role in the movie. Nielsen's playing is subtle and precise, suggesting the strength that her father sees, and the softness that Maximus once loved.
While the cast includes fine actors such as Derek Jacobi (once Claudius), Richard Harris, Djimon Hounsou (as a gladiator) and David Hemmings, who has an incredible role, Oliver Reed stands out. Once a star, bad choices and, reportedly, a bad temper and a tendency to show up drunk, gradually exiled him to cheap, straight-to-video junk. 'Gladiator' is a return to form: his performance is strong, dynamic, commanding -- this grizzled old lion steals every scene he's in, including those with Crowe. Reed died (in a bar) while making 'Gladiator', requiring some post-production tinkering, but it's a great note for him to have ended his career on -- it may be the best performance of his career.
Technically, the movie is outstanding, from the production design by Arthur Max, through the wide-screen photography by John Mathieson, to the stunningly good score by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard (who sings). The sound design by Per Hallberg is also superb: you can hear the hoofbeats of every individual horse, the crash of each sword, the distinctive whisk of blades slicing flesh, and this applies to the DVD as much as to the theatrical version.
Even though the producers were obviously short on explosions, car chases and the like, 'Gladiator' is a great choice for home audio buffs. The Chapters (listed on disc in Roman numerals) that feature the most exciting stuff, in terms of sound, include II, the "Hell Unleashed" sequence of Romans battling Germanic tribesmen in a forest. The ratcheting Roman machines, the crash of their blazing firepots, and the sound of swords slashing through flesh are expertly rendered.
Chapters XI, XV, XIX and XXVI all feature combat in the coliseums where Maximus takes on his opponents. Hallberg gives us the sound of skulls being crushed, spurting blood, grunts, groans, moans and screams. In Rome, the roar of the crowd envelops us; the scrape of gravel, the clash of metal on metal, the snarls of tigers -- all seem real and dynamic.
The disc includes plentiful extras, such as an extensive roster of scenes cut just before release -- these are all color-timed and scored, and have optional commentary tracks by director Ridley Scott explaining why each scene was removed. The biggest loss are those featuring Oliver Reed as Proximo; it was his last movie, and each missing minute of his great performance is regrettable.
There's an extensive and well-done documentary on the making of 'Gladiator,' partly interesting because the colors are quite different than in the finished film. It features interviews with many of those involved, including Oliver Reed, whose death isn't mentioned. There's also an intriguing documentary on the history of gladiatorial combat which holds up on its own, and not just as a promotion for the movie.
'Gladiator' was the biggest big-scale movie surprise of the year 2000: the first ancient epic in more than 30 years, a surprisingly thoughtful action movie that featured excellent performances. And because it starred Russell Crowe, it crossed over from appealing mostly to men, to women as well. The DVD is doing the same.