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To its credit, Gladiator doesn't even pretend to be based on true events though it does include a few historical figures among its cast of characters, specifically the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, his son Commodus and his daughter Lucilla. Free from all pretense of constraint by historical fact, the writing team of David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson crafted a simple but stirring action-adventure yarn cloaked in the pomp of the Roman Empire and the grizzly spectacle of gladiatorial games.
The film opens with a suitably cinematic battle between a Roman legion and a barbarian horde in wintery Germania circa 181 A.D. In decidedly-ahistoric fashion the Romans defeat their enemy in a free-for-all melee of blood and gore with their general Maximus (Russell Crowe) besting all his legionaries in body count.
The battle won and Germania subdued, Maximus wishes to retire to a life of farming in Spain, but reluctantly agrees to one last task on behalf of his infirmed emperor and father-figure Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) - to restore the Roman Republic by overseeing the transfer of power to the Senate (a mostly benign body of legislators, simultaneously patrician and of the people, in this fiction anyway).
Before Marcus Aurelius can make his plans widely known he's suffocated by his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Despite Maximus being a seemingly popular general with his troops, Commodus then has no difficulty in spiriting away Maximus from the midst of his army's camp. Though easily captured repeatedly throughout the film, Maximus proves here (not for the first or last time) hard to kill. After slaying his captors, Maximus races home to Spain to find his family and slaves butchered and his farm burned to the ground.
No sooner does Maximus bury his wife and child than he's captured yet again, this time by a slave trader who happened to be passing through his neighborhood. He's then sold to a gladiatorial school in North Africa where he proves to be an unparalleled killer. After effortlessly dispatching competitors by the cartload, Maximus and his confederates are shipped off to Rome to perform before the new Emperor.
Once in Rome, Maximus' victories in the Colosseum undermine Commodus' authority thereby emboldening Commodus' enemies to plot against him. Though this intrigue comes to naught, it provides interludes between the combats which both take center stage and ultimately decide the course of Rome.
Though Gladiator is first and foremost a simple action yarn about an aggrieved man of principle motivated by revenge, a half-hearted romantic interest is shoehorned in via a storyline about Marcus Aurelius' daughter Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) carrying a torch for Maximus, while simultaneously fending off the incestuous advances of her brother and single-parenting a young son (Spencer Treat Clark).
Russell Crowe earned an Oscar for his performance though it's difficult to fathom why. Crowe makes the most of the limited character of Maximus by glowering convincingly throughout, but in truth there's nothing in this uncomplicated, virtuous character of few words that's sufficient to warrant a Best Actor nod no matter how spot on the performance. Perhaps Crowe's Oscar here was really intended by the Academy to right the wrong of not awarding him the honor for his performance in The Insider the year before.
This two-disc Blu-ray release of Gladiator contains both the 155-minute theatrical cut and the 171-minute extended cut which inserts 16 minutes of deleted material back into the film through seamless branching. Lest there be any doubt, in a video introduction to the extended cut director Ridley Scott goes to great pains to make clear that the theatrical cut is his preferred version. Created in 2005 to justify a fourth American release on DVD, the extended cut lengthens several scenes by a few frames and reinserts scenes depicting Maximus tending his troops and of political intrigue in Rome, but does nothing to alter the story or characters overall.
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in 1080p high definition, Gladiator looks good, though not nearly as good as many videophiles had hoped. Much virtual ink has been spilt already about the video quality of this release. Internet forum posters point to noticeable edge-enhancement, DNR and other digital manipulation of the image designed to minimize blemishes. While these criticisms are generally true, it's also true that Gladiator has never looked better for the home video market. Ridley Scott's blue-grey and sepia color pattern is vividly rendered, and there's more detail and texture to be found here despite the manipulation than in any of the prior DVD releases.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA lossless audio is a marked jump in fidelity over prior releases. Although surprisingly lacking in deep base rumble (presumably attributable to the original sound design), there's a bright clarity to everything else. Swords being removed from their sheaths or being stuck into flesh sound exactly as we image they should, as does the gallop of horses and the twang of bow strings. In sum, the work of the sound designers is put to the test to a degree that would not have been imaginable when Gladiator was first released on DVD in 2000.
This release also sports the option of a French or Spanish 5.1 DD dub, and subtitles in English, French, Spanish or Korean.
This release sports a collection of extras extensive enough to rival that of the most fan-oriented sci-fi or fantasy film. Spread across two Blu-ray discs, the extras are lengthy enough to swallow a viewer's weekend. In addition to offering the film in its original or extended cut, disc one includes a commentary track for each with director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe, and a 79-minute documentary about the historical basis of elements of the film, entitled The Scrolls of Knowledge, which can be watched in whole or by topic.
Disc two includes nearly six hours of additional material including a 196-minute making-of documentary, entitled Strength and Honor: Creating the World of Gladiator, and as if this was not exhaustive enough more behind the scenes technical information is provided in the five-part Image and Design section which includes featurettes on sets, costumes, and weapons as well as extensive photo galleries. There are 23 minutes of abandoned sequences and deleted sequences which includes unfinished excised shots of which the alternative title design is the most interesting. There's also another staggering nine-part collection of supplementary documentaries and featurettes entitled The Aurelian Archives which includes a 25-minute HBO promo piece entitled The Making of Gladiator, a Learning Channel one-off called Gladiator Games: the Roman Bloodsport (50 min.), a featurette about Hans Zimmer's score (21 min.), a 24-minute featurette about the special effects, an audience Q&A with Russell Crowe (27 min.), a gag reel with Russell Crowe (8 min.), a text and photo diary by actor Spencer Treat Clark, and finally two theatrical trailers and twenty TV spots.
For viewers that own one of the many prior releases of Gladiator on DVD and feel the desire to re-watch this popcorn flick from time to time, this release is enough of an improvement to warrant the upgrade. Although the excessive edge enhancement and DNR will annoy some videophiles, most viewers should be happy enough with this Blu-ray release which collects both the theatrical cut and extended cut of the film together with a myriad of extras.