[box cover]

Gladiator: Signature Selection

Dreamworks Home Entertainment

Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Richard Harris,
and Oliver Reed

Written by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson

Directed by Ridley Scott

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Maximus (Russell Crowe) is a sensitive fellow. As a father, he deeply loves his wife and son. As a son, he reverently prays to his departed parents. As a farmer, he wistfully longs for the golden Elysium fields of his Spanish home. And as a General of the Roman Legion he is a vicious kicker of all things ass. His commitment to each is unwavering.

He is loved and revered by the Centurions who bravely follow him into hellish combat with Germanic barbarians. The ailing Emperor Marcus Aurelius regards him as highly as if Maximus were his own son. In fact, the Emperor chooses Maximus as his successor and charges him with delivering his beloved Rome back into the hands of Senate and the people.

Naturally, this doesn't sit very well with the Emperor's real son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Commodus would like to be Emperor. Commodus thinks the Senate is boring. Commodus wants to have sex with his sister and his nephew. Commodus is a villain. In a moment of what can only be termed "poor judgment," the Emperor breaks the news to Commodus in private. Commodus, upset, murders his father and orders Maximus and his family to be executed.

As action heroes are wont to do, Maximus skillfully escapes his cruel fate — but he's too late to save his family from a gruesome demise. He is distraught and demoralized, and subsequently captured into slavery, where he passively accepts his new trade: gladiator. While he shows a natural flair for the work, cruel turns of fate have sapped Maximus of his passion. That is, until he realizes his new lot's potential for exacting vengeance.

Commodus, a populist leader, aims to win Roman hearts with a spectacle of carnage, planning a nonstop orgy of battle in the Colosseum featuring the best and brightest killing machines from throughout the Empire. It doesn't take a genius to see that Commodus and Maximus are on a path to a speedy, if not tearful, reunion.

For a summer blockbuster, Ridley Scott's Gladiator is rich with Machiavellian plots and machinations. For an action film, it's very solemn and austere. On both these counts, it is a great success, leading some guest critics on prominent television shows to go so far as to call it one of the best films ever made. This is wide of the mark. Gladiator, as Roman epics go, is no Spartacus and certainly no Ben-Hur. Subtext in Gladiator runs shallow, despite its purple, important-sounding and reverently delivered dialog ("There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile. "). This isn't Shakespeare; it's soap-opera, circa 180 AD.

But that is not to say that as a shallow, simple, crowd-pleaser, Gladiator is not a worthy diversion. In fact, it is a class above the average summer mega-movie, but not because of its faux-literate script, its surface-obsessed director, nor its multitude of musclemen in skirts. Gladiator's secret to success is thus:

Russell Crowe is the coolest man alive.

Suspicions raised by L.A. Confidential and supported by The Insider have been confirmed. Russell Crowe is the Best Actor Working in Film Today. Crowe finds in Maximus an incredible strength of will and yet delivers a performance so uncommonly calm in its sense of self that it is thrilling and moving at times that most movies get stuck in the bubblegum. Crowe's Maximus doesn't need to grunt and flex to assert his power. There's no NFL touchdown showboating to accentuate his prowess. He does the opposite. He withdraws at moments of triumph, leaving an absence more powerful than any fanfare. Crowe understands the power of subtle moments, and so transforms a movie easily intoxicated with grandeur. Arnold Schwarzenegger could've played the part of Maximus — and if you don't think the studio heads pined for him, I fear for you.

There are so many sublime Crowe moments in Gladiator that the film feels much more exciting and important than it actually is. He electrifies prosaic moments with his fixed stare or a lightning flash of emotion. This may be the only action-star performance in history that belongs in the pantheon of greats, and if the Oscars weren't so despicably worthless, I'd say he deserves one. In keeping with the tone of the film, let's say he deserves to cleave in twain whatever sorry fool does win.

In Joaquin Phoenix, Crowe finds a worthy adversary. Establishing himself as more than just a weird-looking freak, Phoenix endows Commodus with a menacing, fey desperation. He's a heartbreaking creep, desperate for love even if he has to kill and extort for it. It's nice to see a villain who is not aloof, like the cookie-cutter clones of Alan Rickman's brilliant baddie in Die Hard. No, Commodus cares. He's an Alpha-Villain, and a joy to loathe.

As is the tradition in these new epics, Hollywood also pulls a couple of greats out of the mothballs for posterity. Richard Harris hasn't lost a step, shining as Marcus Aurelius, and Oliver Reed doesn't embarrass himself much in his last film role as Maximus' Gladiator mentor.

Acting aside, Gladiator's aspirations are more noble than its accomplishments. Director Scott, who knows how to craft a beautiful aesthetic, casts Gladiator in rueful shades, wrapping it in thin gravity. He also pretends at times to capture the elegiac poetry of battle, but his attempt is a pale shadow of Akira Kurosawa's operatic battles in Ran and further undermined by his overall focus on titillating violence (there's a lot of good dismemberments here, too; don't get me wrong).

As for the much-lauded digital effects used to create the vision of Imperial Rome, success is hit and miss. Some of the effects, like the inside of the Colosseum during the battles, are seamless, but when the images linger they sometimes resemble high-quality airbrush art often seen on the side of vans.

For a great-looking film, Gladiator is well-transferred on DVD from DreamWorks, in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, while audio is available in Dolby Digital 6.1, 5.1, or 2.0 Surround. Extras have been piled on this two-disc set as well, particularly with an informative commentary from Scott, editor Pietro Scalia and cinematographer John Mathieson. Also on board are an "HBO First Look" behind-the-scenes featurette, The Learning Channel's The Bloodsport of a Gladiator, 25 minutes of deleted scenes with director's commentary, and another seven-minute montage of additional unused footage.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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