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Gladiator Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    83

    Gladiator Review

    Well, it took a long time to actually get hold of a copy of this to report on. At times it even seemed as though the Gods, themselves, were deliberately obstructing me from seeing my favourite movie of all-time in hi-def - and there are plenty out there who would argue that I'm still not seeing it in hi-def even now. But, at least now we can finally discuss the UK region-free release of Gladiator from Universal.

    What follows here is an appropriately extended version of the review I wrote for the 3-disc set that came out a long while back. With several more years under the bridge and given the immense popularity of the film and peoples' familiarity with it, I feel no compunction about presenting spoilers throughout ... so, if you haven't seen Gladiator, I would recommend that you just skip to the technical side of things. And, hey, there's a lot of ground covered there, too, so watch out.

    “What we do in life ... echoes in eternity.”

    Anyone that knows me - and even those who have seen the hints littered throughout my earlier reviews - will already know that Gladiator is my all-time favourite movie. When I first saw it on release day at the cinema it literally floored me - its combination of visual splendour, breathtaking action and the hauntingly beautiful story that propelled it, captivating me so completely that my enthusiasm for it has since become an addiction. From 50ft long vinyl banners and SPQR tattooed upon my arm (I won't go as far as to carve it off with a sharp stone, though) to actual prop swords and costumes from the film itself, my obsession for this sweeping epic of revenge and fateful redemption has not diminished over the nine years since I first saw encountered it. It still rouses me and profoundly moves me with every single viewing and it is viewed very often indeed. So, it should come as no surprise that, in my opinion anyway, I felt certain that this new BD release of the Expanded Edition of Gladiator, with its Colosseum-full of bonuses, would be my Holy Grail of home video entertainment. But reviewing it is not as easy as you might think, though. I know this film so well that putting my thoughts down about it is akin to reviewing a loved one, or a best friend. How can I be objective about something so dear to me? Where do I start? And, perhaps more importantly for one of my reviews, where do I, ahem, end?

    “At my signal ... unleash Hell!”

    You know, that bit quoted above always makes me think that Max is referring to this loyal wolf-dog, held temporarily in-check by a servant on the ground beside him. You watch the scene again.

    Well, to begin with, let's assume that we all know the story - glorious Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe at his most spectacularly intense), loved by the ailing Emperor Marcus Aurelius (a fine, lethargically noble Richard Harris) falls foul of Caesar-wannabe Commodus (then young upstart Joaquin Phoenix) and ends up fighting for his life in bloody arenas from Morocco to Rome. The story of the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator and the gladiator who then defied an emperor is painted against a huge canvas of the ancient world of Roman might, its majesty and its innate cruelty depicted with a retina-scorching level of detail and conviction by the cinematic master of all-round immersive world-creation, Sir Ridley Scott. Yet, the tale coursing throughout the sweeping narrative is actually much smaller and more intimate than the visual excess would have you believe - it is, at its core, the simple odyssey of a noble and courageous man who merely longs to go home to his wife and son. With this in mind, it was an unusual, and even dangerous, pitch. I don't mean the gamble of making a big scale, historical, sword and sandal drama in the midst of Hollywood's most shallow and regurgitative period (Gladiator's success veritably opened the floodgates to all manner of period saga-productions from Troy to King Arthur to Kingdom Of Heaven to Master And Commander to 300) - but rather the overtly bleak and upsetting first act that sees the tragically flawed heir to the throne, Commodus, not only slay his own father to pave his way to power, but order the execution of Rome's mightiest and most loyal warrior, and even slaughter the poor man's family, to boot. This is deeply harrowing stuff, a gut-punch that will take monumental effort by all concerned to see that we get righteous and emotionally resonant payback by the end, and that it is done convincingly. At least we didn't see them slay his amazing, charge-leading wolf-dog, Bonius. That would have been too much - as Scott, himself, admits. It's certainly an old and well-worn theme - the haunted, lone hero who has lost everything and must battle against the odds to achieve some semblance of salvation, but the style with which it is delivered is unique and inspiring, a conflagration of old concept with new technologies and sensibilities. The team-up of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, who found such a chemistry and worked so well together that they have, to date, made three other movies, ensures that not a moment goes by without the senses being stirred or overwhelmed, the mind prodded with possibilities and the heart torn by extremes of emotion.

    “A people should know when they're conquered.”

    “Would you, Quintus? Would I?”

    With profound enthusiasm and the kind of ensemble endeavour that made Hollywood's Golden Age so ambitious and renowned for lavishly mounted studio-backed spectacle, Scott amassed an army on both sides of the camera and committed himself to re-energising a long dormant format that would courageously combine costumes with testosterone, tragedy with heroism and ignite such passion that no-one could refute, or ignore the return of the historical epic. The big moments are plentiful, rich and immensely satisfying, everything backed up by Hans Zimmer's incredible melting-pot fusion of exotic world music, pounding percussive action and Wagnerian pomp and grandeur. Regular collaborator Lisa Gerrard provides some genuinely ethereal and lamenting vocals, too, that give the soul a thorough trembling and raise the spiritual level of the drama. The awesome opening battle in the frozen mud of Germania pitches us violently into the terrifying world of hack 'n' slash, face to face combat with a gritty and marvellously atmospheric authenticity. Immediately, Scott takes us by the scruff of the neck and literally hurls us into the limb-lopping thick of it as the barbarians charge down the slope into the CG-swelled ranks of war-hardened Romans. I still wish they'd added a few more of the hulking, hairy savages though, because their army (led by the redoubtable titan, Chick Allan) definitely looks a bit thin on the ground once battle is joined. The comparisons to the Omaha beach landings of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan are well-founded, however. With frame-jumping editing and kinetic hand-held camerawork that heightens the realism and the confusion of such fierce warfare, the barrage of imagery is instantly compelling and brutally addictive. The horror is contained in the things we barely see - decapitations whistling by before we've even had a chance to react. The flaming arrow bombardment and pots of burning oil add a twist that we've never seen done this effectively before, and don't forget to check out the double-impalement of two tribesmen on a massive spear for sheer majestic oomph! value. Scott would take this adrenalised foundation and go on to make the equally wince-inducing battles in Kingdom Of Heaven (see review for BD) and, of course, capture the ferocity of modern warfare with the senses-numbing Black Hawk Down. Wolfgang Petersen's full version of Troy exceeds the savagery seen here, but totally lacks the embedded barbarism and sinew-taut dread we have of each falling blade.

    “You get the Battle of Carthage.”

    “You mean the massacre of Carthage.”

    Each and every arena skirmish, from the dusty, flea-infested provincial bouts to the Premier League in the Cathedral of Carnage, itself, the Colosseum in the heart of Rome, carry a visceral, nerve-twitching excitement that would have even the most kind-hearted, Shreddie-knitting old grandmother baying for blood. You can literally smell all those Maltese extras making up the crowd salivating when Maximus rams an axe into the foot of his giant opponent, Tigris of Gaul, and then kicks him to the deck. The earlier scene of a lone Maximus taking on six heavily armoured gladiators all at once remains my favourite billing - from the Spaniard's confident stride down the tunnel to oblivion, to pig-head's two-sword decapitation, this is an absolutely scintillating display of interpersonal mayhem, and the former general's arrogant taunting of the crowd after his swift victory over all six is simply electrifying. “Are you not entertained?” Hell, yes! Do it again, Max! Do it again! For a variety of reasons this scene is one of the most inspirational that I have ever witnessed. The actual combat may not be all that detailed - and it is over in seconds - but the sheer power of Maximus' character becomes so indomitable, so convincingly larger-than-life that it roars out across the ages to speak to and, I'll wager, urge on the confidence of sportsmen and woman even today. Arrogance, rage and supreme self-belief may not be the most sociable of qualities but, given many of today's circumstances, I would call them a winning combination. The chain-fight that sees Maximus make his gladiatorial debut is a galvanising rush of impact-heavy super-violence - the brute strength of Ralf Moeller's Hagen as invincible as his ferocious Germanic pride as he gleefully despatches all-comers, Djimon Hounsou perfectly embodying Juba's instinctive hunter's prowess as he aids our champ-in-the-making in blitzing out their opponents via bone-crunching shield smacks and windpipe-shattering chain-charges. Love poor Skeletorius' anguished gasping from behind his mask as he contemplates just what went wrong, and how come his own trident ended up sticking out of his gut. But, of course, the chariot battle with its gold-armoured, Amazonian warrior-women and Maximus' thrilling act of stealing the show by simply not dying probably provides the most audience-thrilling spectacle. He does indeed “Win the crowd,” as gladiator-trainer Proximo advises him, and he is more instinctive and predatory than those tigers in Round 2 at the Colosseum appear to be.

    “My name is Gladiator.”

    “How dare you turn your back on me, slave! You will remove your helmet and tell me your name!”

    That's got to be the cue for one of the most memorable and parodied of modern-movie speeches.

    Yet, the slower moments are just as riveting at the frenzied set-tos. Maximus's quiet contemplation of the robin just before the opening battle, his heart swelling as he regains the precious figurines of his family from loyal servant Cicero (the great Tommy Flanagan, who saw action in Braveheart as well), Commodus gently caressing the alabaster bust of his father and just about any image of the afterlife - who doesn't want to drift away on Scott's beautiful liquid cloud as it pours through the dream-sky? Even the Senate politics are never boring - Commodus's pure petulance (that lip was God-given for the role, wasn't it?) making every scene he is in a bizarre tightrope-act between cringe-inducing arrogance and fearsome brooding. He might be just a big sulky kid, but I wouldn't want to be around him when he's “terribly vexed.” Phoenix was a bag of nerves acting opposite such seasoned professionals, but this dilemma plays exquisitely for the troubled, self-doubting ruler. “And now they love him for his mercy, which means I can't kill him or that makes me even more unmerciful!” he whines about Maximus outwitting him yet again, Phoenix imbuing Commodus with a believable sense of clutching embarrassment, shame and futility.

    “Still afraid of the dark, brother?”

    “Still. Always ...”

    The performances are all fantastic, and shot through with a sterling conviction to character that eliminates all staginess and the wallowing Shakespearian traits that many may have expected - even David Hemmings, sporting those devilish (and real) eyebrows and that unsightly wig is having a cheeky time of it as Games Master, Cassius. Altogether rougher and more antagonistic an actor, Richard Harris has many wonderful moments and brings an aged weariness to the part of an emperor who has known virtually no peace throughout his reign as Caesar - “... please, please don't call me that,” he pleads, ashamed of bringing nothing but the sword to the world around him. The touching moment when he invites Maximus (the son he believes he should have had) to talk of his home lends a gravity to the role that leaves his spirit felt long after his disturbing smothering-to-death by Commodus. I love that little look he gives when he wonders how the world will remember him “... the tyrant?” and his cheeky Steptoe-grin when he asks for another blanket to warm his old bones. Connie Nielsen manages to keep the lovelorn Lucilla a believably strong, yet achingly vulnerable, manipulator and victim, all at once. She, perhaps, benefits the most from this extended cut with a scene reinstated that sees her finally agree with Derek Jacobi's plotting Gracchus that her decadent, and incestuous, brother must be killed. This fully allows her character to complete the arc that sees her first as playful flirt with old flame Maximus, through the dignified horror of her father's eminently suspicious death and the reserved terror she feels for the safety of her own son from the despicable Commodus, to fateful accomplice in a deadly game of political skulduggery. Her nobility at the end - “He was a soldier of Rome, honour him,” - feels more rounded now, her journey to get to this point as challenging as that of Maximus, the risks she has taken far more grave because she still has something to lose.

    “Strength and honour.”

    But, of course, the towering performance that anchors the whole thing to its core, is from Russell Crowe. Now, let's differentiate here ... Russell Crowe, the man, has proved himself to be quite an idiot on far too many occasions now for even myself, his once staunchest fan, to defend but, Russell Crowe, the actor, remains an incredibly powerful force of nature who can inhabit a character more completely and more defiantly than anybody else on the planet. Well, there was a time when Christian Bale came a very close second (too many boringly shouty and blandly stoic roles have put paid to that, I'm afraid) but Crowe, especially here in the Oscar-winning role that he will be remembered for forever, commands the attention like nothing else before, or since. His performance is so magnetic, so intense - scaling the heights of rampaging testosterone and yet also managing the quieter moments of haunting grief and soul-stifling despair with heart-rending ease - that you simply cannot take your eyes off him. His journey is fraught with trauma, with deception and death, but Crowe ensures that we are with him every step of the way, willing him on, yet understanding all along, as he survives each successive struggle, that there can only ever be one possible outcome. From the famous snot-filled discovery of his crucified family, through the raw hate he exhibits when Commodus baits him later on about their deaths - there is so much genuine rage in those eyes that I'm not surprised Phoenix was so nervous - to the transcendental euphoria of finally finding home again, at the gates of Elysium, Crowe delivers what I honestly believe is the one of the best performances I have ever seen. Check out the flickering of his eyes when he tries to refocus on Quintus after he has just seen his family in the afterlife. Or the reserved joy that bubbles just beneath his expression when Lucilla's son, Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark), beckons him over. He inhabits every moment with startling validity. You can believe this man could lead armies into hellish war. You can believe the pain he feels at missing his home - “Kitchen smells of herbs in the daytime, jasmine in the evening,” - and his longing just to return to those he loves. Though duty crushes him, his dedication to Rome is an all-too tangible fire burning deep within him. “Yet you have never been there. You have not seen what it has become,” advises Marcus Aurelius, all too aware that his way of thinking is now outdated and unwelcome. To all his detractors - and their ranks swell with every headline he makes - Russell Crowe gives this role more than any other actor, living or dead, ever could, ensuring that Maximus is now an indelible cinematic icon.

    “We mortals are but shadows and dust, Maximus. Shadow and dust ...

    Oliver Reed's mighty swansong is perhaps the perfect epitaph for the talented rogue. As the gladiator who gained his freedom a long time ago, Reed gives Proximo a calculated air of gruff indifference to the suffering of his human stock that turns full circle when he realises the potential for fortune he has with Maximus becoming his star attraction, and gasps out his recollections of what it was like in the arena back in his day to his prized protégé. “Fifty thousand Romans watching every movement of your sword ... waiting for you to make that killer blow.” Look at his eyes misting over as he relives his former glory, Reed is really seeing such past, but fictitious, victories in his mind's eye. In others, this could have been sheer melodramatic overkill, but Reed senses the boundaries and keeps his bravura just the right side of intoxicating. There was a time when even he would have ruined such a scene but, perhaps as with Richard Harris, too (another notorious warrior-thesp to match Mad Ollie's unpredictable temperament), he sensed the real-life resonance of how little opportunity he had left before Fate came calling, genuine acting glories from yesteryear swirling up before him. And if that last flame of fury he sees in Maximus is dedicated to raising the Colosseum to the ground - then so be it, Reed's swaggering performance giving way to allow a tangible degree of yearning to seep through. His change of heart towards the end is not at all ill-fitting or shoe-horned in, for, poetically echoing what Marcus Aurelius told Maximus about “when a man sees his end ...” he knows that, without the Games, he is nothing. Destiny, as with every other character in this intense drama, cannot be thwarted. In fact, it should be embraced.

    “I will see you again. But not yet. Not yet.”

    So, what of this extended cut? Does it better an already excellent, Academy appreciated movie? Yes, quite simply, it does. As Ridley Scott points out in his three-minute Introduction, this is still not a Director's Cut, just a version with a few more scenes put back in that we might like to see. With roughly seventeen minutes of extra footage seamlessly integrated back, we are now permitted a little more political scheming, a gory visit to a Roman army hospital, the terrific Praetorian execution exhibiting the depths of Commodus's mania (featuring, by the way, a friend of my family, Adam Levy, in his big screen debut - he's the Praetorian prisoner who actually speaks before getting quilled with arrows) and we get to meet in more detail the poor, reluctant gladiator who wets himself before the chain-fight, as well as more pre-friendly Hagen strutting his defiant stuff. There are many more insertions spread throughout the movie, sufficed to say that the best, and longest, is when Lucilla makes her clandestine meeting with Gracchus and Gaius, played, respectively, by stage-born stalwarts of the period drama Derek Jacobi and mellifluous-voiced John Shrapnel, listing the extent of her brother's lunacy - literally bleeding Rome dry in order to pay for his ludicrous Games - and the three becoming terrified and determined, yet fateful conspirators. Some are just little snippets here and there that add more atmosphere and flavour, but the film certainly feels more complete and rounded with them reinstated. Sadly, there is no more real action, despite the longer cut having a bit more blood and death in it. One fault that I always felt with the movie was the speed at which Maximus gained fame as a gladiator. We see him survive his first fight and then the next time we see him enter the arena he is a known hero, already leagues ahead of his sweaty colleagues. In fact, his fellow gladiators even acknowledge him with respect and the crowd cry out for the “Spaniard!” to come and fight. Despite the many battles throughout the film, I really thought it was necessary to have just one more to show his skills and his notoriety growing. However, this has been quite neatly addressed with the awesome Oliver Reed chastising him before the six-on-one fight for always killing his opponents too quickly - “The crowd don't want a butcher, they want a hero. So entertain!” he orders his now-groomed and armoured lethal weapon. This small addition does provide a little more relevance because now, and in context, you get the feeling that Maximus has been round the block a few times, been awarded the highly distinctive and individualised shoulder-plate - soon to be added to with Proximo's own chest armour (watch how the decorations on it grow more personalised as the film progresses) - and made a name for himself. Of course, this all leads up to the fantastic “Are you not entertained?” speech, which is a terrifically surly denunciation of the crowds' blood-lust, as well as an arrogant sneer towards Proximo's somewhat tenuous-feeling ownership of him.

    “Now we are free ...”

    Gaff-lovers will be pleased to note that Scott has not tinkered with the numerous errors in the movie with any sort of digital jiggery-pokery, which, given the nature and notoriety of this Blu-ray release's DNR cavalcade, is actually quite remarkable. The air canister in the back of the chariot, the bloke wandering about the Roman army camp in his jeans, the glimpse of a building with modern windows in the background behind the provincial arena, the convenient pillow of sand that suddenly appears beneath a dying Maximus' head and, my personal favourite, the barbarians who can quite plainly be seen chatting amiably away to their Roman enemies right in the thick of the Germania war-zone, amongst many others, are all still there to be savoured. Ahhh well, the magic of the movies, eh?

    "The frost ... sometimes, it makes the blade stick."

    Gladiator remains a landmark motion picture, breaking pop-cultural stagnancy with thunderous conviction and creating an instantly recognisable modern movie hero who, as far as I am concerned, can rival the likes of Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, Rambo, Batman or James Bond. The film, itself, is vastly more emotional than it is intelligent, yet this does nothing to dilute the influence it had in making history altogether more fashionable for many people, film and TV dramatists included. Cinematically, Scott also created a film of incredible beauty. With the immeasurable aid of John Mathieson's photography, he delivered such breathtaking and lingering imagery as the hand wafting through the wheat-fields, lifted by 300, of course, the surreal hallucinations of a delirious Maximus, a cruelly spiked helmet that looks like an ancient S & M relic, a snow-filtered stand-off between man and rider, a dog leaping spectacularly through a wall of flame, and, most gobsmacking of all, our eye-popping, 360-degree unveiling of the Colosseum, itself. Immensely satisfying, and packing such a cathartic wallop that it actually makes the death of its hero, after battering, defeating and humiliating his nemesis in front of what may as well have been the whole known world, a happy ending, Gladiator strives for immortality. And I, for one, could watch it forever.

    Remember, what we say in reviews ... echoes in the forums.

    Strength and Honour.