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We've seen it before - but it still works (+ DVD Review)

Dec 1, 2000
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Russell Crowe's epic performance / Strong supporting cast / Impressive simulation of ancient Rome

Cons:Way too predictable / Ever heard of Braveheart? / Historical inaccuracies abound

In anticipation of viewing Gladiator for the first time, there are two distinct audiences. One group consists of those who were astounded by Mel Gibson's Braveheart and hope to recapture its magic once again. The more cynical, pessimistic group doubts that Gladiator can live up to its steep expectations and very similar predecessors. This group anticipates, but hopes against, disappointment. While I must admit that I belonged to the later category, at least this way I can honestly say that Gladiator surpassed my expectations.

We find ourselves back in time, all the way to 180 A.D., around the peak of the Roman Empire. Maximus (Russell Crowe - Romper Stomper, L.A. Confidential, Insider), one of Emperor Marcus Aurelius' (Richard Harris - Camelot) greatest generals, is leading his massive army into one of the Empire's last battles. He convincingly rouses his beloved troupes, commanding them with honor, dignity, and strength.

Fiery arrows begin flying through the woods in every direction, igniting numerous fires. Swords are quickly drawn as the army's bloodlust boils - the troupes collide in horribly brutal warfare. Maximus is right in the middle of the raging battle, fighting for his life along with his soldiers. Although they suffer terrible losses, the Empire is victorious and the war is over, at least for now.

After this ten minute, bloody battle scene, the real plot of the movie comes into play. Marcus Aurelius is very old, preparing to die. He has a son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix - 8MM, To Die For), who is the natural heir to the throne. We see Commodus arriving on the scene with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen - Devil's Advocate), and it is immediately apparent that he will be our antagonist.

Marcus Aurelius knows that Commodus is not fit for the throne, and so he will defy convention and hand it over to his honorable general, Maximus, instead. Predictably, Marcus Aurelius informs his son of his plans, assuring himself an even quicker death at his son's hands. Commodus then steps into his inherent position as Emperor, and when Maximus refuses to acknowledge him, he immediately banishes the general to slavery. And to make sure that he is hurt in the worst way possible, he orders Maximus' wife and son to be murdered.

As a slave, under the hands of Proximus (the late Oliver Hall), Maximus is trained to become a gladiator. As was customary in these times, gladiators were slaves who fought each other to the death in coliseums for the entertainment of enormous crowds. If they became popular with the crowds, and more importantly, survived, through enough fights, they were sometimes granted their freedom. Maximus wants nothing more than to win back his freedom and have revenge on an unsuspecting Commodus.

Ridley Scott, popular director of such successful movies as Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, and G.I. Jane, brought an epic vision to the screen in his tremendous production of Gladiator. He assembled a very talented cast, lead by a powerful performance from Russell Crowe. His entire supporting cast handles their respective roles with great flair and attention to the drama. Although the battles are not as engrossing as they could be and the scenery fails to take our breathe away, as Scott certainly intended, the majestic simulation of ancient Rome is undeniably impressive.

Gladiator works as an fascinating creation and an occasionally riveting adventure, but its many flaws prevent it from earning a high recommendation. To begin with, the story is entirely too predictable. From the time Marcus Aurelius professes his plans to Commodus, with a little thought, baring a few details, you can probably call the rest of the movie. It can also not be denied that we have seen this all before. While I am not the biggest fan of Braveheart, there is no doubt that Gladiator does not live up to its precursor. Lastly, though his will not be much of a complaint to many, the story's historical facts are way off on many points. I am no historian, but I have heard so many people complain about this aspect of the movie, including all of those with whom I saw it, that these flaws may prove difficult for many to look past.

Despite my many complaints, I must still recommend Gladiator to all audiences who can handle its very bloody, graphic violence. Although it is not one of the best movies of the summer, as many critics and audiences claim, it is certainly worthy of one viewing, especially if you can get a hold of the wonderful DVD.

7 out of 10.

Rated R for very intense, graphic combat violence

DVD Extras: Simply put, the DVD production of Gladiator is phenomenal; and especially when its discounted cost of around $15 at many retail stores is considered, it stands as one of the most impressive DVDs for its price ever assembled. Coming as a 2 disk set, the first is of course the film, with an extraordinary DTS soundtrack (also Dolby Digital 5.1). Along with the film in its beautiful 2.35:1 widescreen format, a full length commentary by director Ridley Scott is included on the first disk.

The second disk is where all of the fun really begins. A very interesting and informative 25 minute behind-the-scenes featurette and another 50 minute featurette, focusing more on the history of gladiators instead of the film itself, highlight the disk. Also included are 11 deleted scenes (interesting, but all rightfully cut) which can be viewed with or without the director's commentary. A 7 minute montage of more cut footage functions as a 12th deleted scene. A 20 minute interview with Hans Zimmer, the composer of the film's score, is also included. Theatrical trailers, TV spots, slide show galleries, storyboards, cast and crew bios, and production notes can also be found on this disk.

Lastly, a very unique and thoroughly interesting feature on the disk is the inclusion of the production diary, written by Spencer Treat Clark during filming. Clark (Arlington Road) plays Lucius, the 11 or 12 year old son of Commodus' sister, Lucilla. Plenty long, taking me about an hour to read, Clark's journal documents his life from the taxi ride to the airport all the way up to the trip home. He talks of his tutoring on the set, his fascination with the entire film's production, his fun behind the scenes, his many wonderful experiences with various members of the cast, and so much more. As a small taste of Clark's interesting style and innocent tales, this excerpt comes from the first day of the journal, during his plane trip to London which he rides with international singing sensation, Charlotte Church: "She is a singer, who was performing in Vegas and doing TV interviews. Her name was Charlotte something or other... All I knew was that she was pretty... and no, I didn't have the nerve to talk to her although we were the only two kids on the flight."

Recommend this product? Yes

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Ridley Scott (BLADE RUNNER, ALIEN) transports Hollywood to second-century Rome in this rousing historical epic that proudly harkens back to such films...
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