Roman epics are as much a part of cinematic history as Lassie and John Wayne. Ever since the silent era and on through such mammoth works as 'Quo Vadis,' 'The Robe,' 'Ben-Hur,' and 'Cleopatra,' studios and audiences have been hopelessly seduced by the ancient empire's intoxicating blend of decadence, intrigue, and grandeur. Yet for every iconic Roman film produced, Hollywood has churned out at least one colossal dud, often swallowing a bitter box office pill when flat receipts proved time and again that spectacle alone isn't enough to keep a sword-and-sandal saga from sinking into the dust.
The genre's inherent traps have sandbagged many a lofty director, but Ridley Scott navigated the minefield well, and 'Gladiator' is the glorious result – a film rich with passion and narrative drive that both followed a timeworn blueprint and blazed its own trail. With a masterful sense of rhythm and timing, Scott combined old school elements with contemporary technique to produce a riveting, often thrilling work that redefined the Hollywood epic and earned five well-deserved Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Russell Crowe). Though he didn't hesitate to pull the trigger and go for broke visually, Scott shrewdly picked his moments, and never loosened his grip on the tenuous emotional thread that keeps the movie grounded. 'Gladiator,' unlike many blockbusters, has heart and more than a little soul, and that, along with Crowe's brawny, brooding presence, is what makes this movie a modern classic.
After defeating a holdout tribe of Germanic barbarians in 180 A.D., Rome's most decorated general, Maximus Meridas (Crowe), wants nothing more than to retreat to his country farm and commune with his wife and young son. But Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) has other ideas. The dying despot abhors the direction in which Rome is heading, and longs to end the "crippling corruption" he fears will one day destroy the empire. Giving power back to the people and returning to a republican form of government is Marcus' last wish, and he anoints Maximus, a symbol of honor, morality, and strength, the caretaker of his dream. Under Marcus' plan, Maximus will become "Protector of Rome," and maintain order until the Senate is strong enough to rule again. "You are the son I should have had," Marcus tells him, and though the emperor's real son, the neglected and insatiably ambitious Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), doesn't hear the comment, he still senses he's fallen out of his father's favor.
Sadly, Marcus doesn't live long enough to implement his plan. The unstable Commodus succeeds him, and almost at once he and Maximus clash. Tragedy ensues, and Maximus is captured by Proximo (Oliver Reed), an entrepreneurial slave trader who recognizes and exploits the fury burning within him. To gain his freedom, the noble Maximus becomes a gladiator, a one-man killing machine who thrills bloodthirsty crowds by viciously vanquishing any foe. And though his heroic deeds in the ring turn him into a sensation, he lives only to take brutal revenge on the society that betrayed him and the twisted emperor who took from him his most precious possessions.
It's rare to call a 155-minute film tight, but 'Gladiator' (even in its 171-minute extended edition) enthralls throughout. Like its hero, the movie's pacing is lean and mean, and no dead scenes drag it down. Scott's arresting style and the picture's top-flight production values keep the eye engaged, yet the veteran director knows when to tone down the stimuli and let the story unfold on its own. Oh sure, the opening battle and violent Coliseum sequences dazzle our senses, but the proof of Scott's pudding lies in its quieter moments, and with a wonderful narrative structure that seamlessly weaves Freudian undertones, political skullduggery, and sexual tension into its fabric, there's enough meat on 'Gladiator's' bulky frame to make the time fly by.
The actors help, too. Crowe, in his first collaboration with Scott (they would later team up for 'A Good Year,' 'American Gangster,' 'Body of Lies,' and the upcoming 'Robin Hood'), commands the screen, making Maximus much more than a big lug obsessed with revenge. Subtle touches abound in his deceptively simplistic interpretation, fleshing out the human qualities that fuel the gladiator's rage and torture his spirit. In a far juicier role, Phoenix tries his best to wrestle the picture away, and almost succeeds with an alternately heartbreaking and repugnant portrait of insecurity, anguish, cruelty, and perversion. Equally compelling performances from Harris, Reed, Connie Nielsen, Derek Jacobi, and Djimon Hounsou enhance the film, and their trained voices add mellifluous luster to the literate, Oscar-nominated screenplay.
Some sagas are stuffy, bloated, and empty. 'Gladiator' is none of those things. Its meticulous attention to detail, riveting performances, and breathtaking spectacle all combine to produce a powerful and memorable film that improves with each viewing. Reinventing and revitalizing an extinct genre is no easy task, yet by blending the best elements of the past and present, Scott succeeds brilliantly. In Hollywood's new epic competition, 'Gladiator' is the one to beat, and in the decade since its initial release, this bold yet poetic blockbuster has knocked off all challengers with the same snarling swagger as its hero.
'Gladiator' has been hands down one of the most hotly anticipated high-def releases since the dawn of the Blu-ray format. The wait has been long, but when Paramount announced Ridley Scott's masterwork would be one of the inaugural titles in the studio's new top-of-the-line Sapphire Series, fans hoped their Job-like patience would be well rewarded. Expectations for a super-deluxe transfer rose to stratospheric heights, and then, like a bolt from the blue, came the screenshots-heard-'round-the-world, and enthusiasm plummeted. Several days before the disc's street date, videophiles showered isolated frames from the transfer across many internet forums (including ours), and decried the heavy use of edge enhancement and digital noise reduction, as well as excessive dirt and scratch removal filtering, that supposedly plagued the film. As a result, the 'Gladiator' controversy has become quite the Blu-ray cause célèbre, and the debate continues to rage. So, has this beloved title been irrevocably ruined by shoddy workmanship, cost-cutting, and a shameful disregard for both the film itself and the fundamental principles of present-day high-def transfer methods? Or, with apologies to Mark Twain, have the reports of 'Gladiator's' demise been greatly exaggerated?
I hate to be a fence straddler, but the answer lies somewhere in between. While I can't pretend to be the ultimate authority on this issue – no one (except maybe Ridley Scott) can – my particular set of eyes found the transfer to possess many of the faults described above, but nowhere near to the extent some of the more vociferous posters have stated. Yes, there's edge enhancement. Yes, there's DNR. I noticed both, but neither destroyed my viewing experience. On the whole, I found 'Gladiator' to be a very worthy upgrade from the previous DVD editions and a fine addition to the Blu-ray catalogue. Clarity is much improved, colors are brighter and bolder, the print is cleaner, and the picture possesses a much greater degree of depth and dimensionality. No, it is not the breathtaking, gasp-inducing effort many fans (including myself) expected, and Paramount promised with the silly Sapphire Series label. But casual viewers who just want to enjoy the drama and spectacle of this Oscar-winning epic with enhanced video and sound should be delighted. Diehard aficionados seeking perfection, however, undoubtedly will be frustrated.
So let's talk specifics. I watched portions of the extended edition of 'Gladiator' on two different displays – a 57-inch Mitsubishi DLP and a 46-inch Mitsubishi LCD. (My TV of choice is the DLP, as I feel the technology provides a more theatrical viewing experience.) The "smaller" screen sizes probably somewhat diminish the offensive digital doctoring, but whether one views the film on a 40-inch or 100-inch display, there's no denying the transfer possesses a definite processed look. Film-like warmth comes at a premium. While light grain lends the picture welcome, necessary texture, a sterile coldness often prevails. At its worst, the transfer makes some images appear almost superimposed on the screen, as excessive sharpening ever-so-slightly detaches figures from their backgrounds and gives certain scenes an artificial layered look. The DLP display was much more adept at masking such deficiencies (although they were still noticeable) and replicating the look and feel of true celluloid. The LCD display, on the other hand, was more unforgiving. Noise was much more visible in solid colors, the image adopted a harsher sheen, loss of detail was more apparent in panoramic shots, and print imperfections (such as errant white dots) were easier to spot. On both displays, however, the Blu-ray still beat upconverted DVD by a wide margin.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the 'Gladiator' transfer is that it's not a consistent effort. Rumor has it the bulk of the film was struck from a 2000 HD master (approved by Scott) in which digital enhancements were made, while the extended scenes are taken from a 2005 HD master that reflects today's more natural transfer standards. As I watched the movie via seamless branching, I really couldn't distinguish between the two per se. Yet upon reexamination, I noticed that while the extended scenes do flaunt a slightly more realistic, film-like look, they're not head-and-shoulders above every sequence in the theatrical cut. In fact, many stretches of the theatrical version rival the extended scenes.
Which brings me to my next point. At times, 'Gladiator' looks spectacularly good, with moments of jaw-dropping dimensionality, terrific detail, and sumptuous color. Though the first third of the film is awash in blue tones or a golden haze, both of which slightly mute contrast, vibrancy perks up measurably when Maximus is captured by the slave traders. The blue sky, green fields, red blood, and clay-colored earth all enjoy marvelous saturation. Fabric details and uniform adornments come through quite well, fleshtones look stable and natural, and black levels and shadow delineation are both stellar.
Much has been made about the scratch removal process defacing the image, especially with regard to arrows and fireballs that disappear and reappear in varying degrees of intensity from one frame to the next during the opening battle sequence. If you'd like to take the time to watch the film in slow-motion to find these instances, be my guest, but you won't see them at normal speed. (That doesn't excuse their existence, but it shouldn't keep anyone from purchasing this disc.) As far as DNR goes, it's there, but not employed so excessively that the actors look like wax figures moving through a Roman tableau at Madame Tussaud's. Facial features can look a bit smooth and at times lack the striking detail we expect from Blu-ray, but plenty of close-ups are razor sharp and absolutely stunning.
All in all, I have to say I've made my peace with this 'Gladiator' transfer. Could it better? Absolutely. Would I trade my copy if a replacement disc was pressed? In a New York minute. Will I toss this Blu-ray in a corner and forget about it until a better version is released? No. While it's far from the knock-my-socks-off, died-and-gone-to-heaven effort for which I and many others had hoped, it's also equally far from the sky-is-falling disaster others have claimed. Until a revamped version comes along, this one will certainly suffice.
Thankfully, no controversies swirl about the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, and only one word describes it: supreme! From the moment the first strains of Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard's score flood the sound field during the movie's opening sequence, we know we're in for a thrilling sonic experience. Crisp, clear, well modulated, sweepingly dynamic, and discreetly mixed, this track is as muscular as Maximus himself, and complements the action with power, style, and nuance. Front channel separation is impeccable, with seamless pans creating a fluid and immersive audio environment, while the rears are almost constantly in play, adding palpable ambience to practically every scene. Some of the rear activity is so faint, it's almost imperceptible – a neighing horse, bits of scoring, hushed murmurs – yet the effects are so finely rendered they add immeasurable life to the drama.
Details shine, from cranking gears and clanking swords to the whir of shooting arrows and gentle breathing of a sleeping child. And when the track lets loose, it pummels us with the clamor of battle – exploding fireballs, the whoosh of a twirling flail, the slicing of human flesh – all expertly balanced and featuring the highest level of purity. The roaring crowd envelops with ease, and hefty bass adds weight to thunderous horse hooves and snarling tigers. Even when the audio is pushed to the limit, distortion is never an issue, as highs and lows seem limitless. This is truly you-are-there sound that makes us feel as if we're in the thick of the action with the characters – wandering a crowded bazaar, fighting to the death in the gladiator ring, flirting with an old flame, or frantically galloping home.
Dialogue is always perfectly prioritized, never yielding to other overlapping elements. The rich voices of Harris, Reed, and Jacobi come through with strength and authority, even during quiet scenes, as do Crowe's booming baritone and Phoenix's boyish tenor. Music is also expertly woven into the mix, and the robust tones possess excellent clarity and tonal depth as they alternately massage and punctuate the narrative.
Video buffs may be disappointed by 'Gladiator,' but audiophiles should cheer this reference quality track.
'Gladiator' arrives on Blu-ray as part of Paramount's new Sapphire Series, and the two-disc set features hours upon hours of absorbing supplements, allowing fans to truly get lost in production minutia. All of the extras from the film's previous DVD editions are included, as well as two new interactive options that offer fresh material on a variety of fascinating topics. When you pop in Disc One, you'll be asked to choose between the original 2000 theatrical version and 2005 extended version of 'Gladiator.' If you select the theatrical version, the 15 minutes of additional material from the extended version is still available to view as deleted scenes, and accessible via the extras menu. If you choose the extended version, the extra scenes will be inserted into the presentation via seamless branching. (The extended version also includes a brief, rather pointless introduction by Scott.)Disc One
The second disc houses the bulk of supplements and opens with the "Visions from Elysium: Topic Portal," which imports selections made on the previous disc for viewing here. You can also watch items immediately from this location, or select and save them to view later. The clips vary in length from 30 seconds to several minutes.
There's no denying 'Gladiator' is a great movie. Ridley Scott's masterfully directed, impeccably mounted epic never fails to thrill the senses, and even with a controversial video transfer, it's still an exhilarating Blu-ray experience. If digital enhancements annoy you like nails on a chalkboard, it might be best to rent 'Gladiator' and see whether the transfer's imperfections exceed your tolerance level before plunking down cash for a purchase. But if you're someone who regards EE and DNR as mere technical acronyms and nothing more, you shouldn't hesitate to pick up this disc. In its current state, 'Gladiator' is still highly watchable and a big improvement from upconverted DVD. Couple that with state-of-the-art audio and a massive supplemental package, and it's difficult not to endorse this release. 'Gladiator' on Blu-ray may not go to the head of the class, but it certainly makes the grade.
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