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Gladiator (4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital / Steelbook)
It had been a minute since I've seen Gladiator, and holy cow it's been 20 years since it came out? The sads of being an old, I tell ya. Anyway, for those who don't know, the screenplay by David Franzoni (Amistad) was directed by Ridley Scott (Body of Lies). Russell Crowe (American Gangster) plays Maximus, a Roman Army General loyal to the emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris, Unforgiven). When Marcus is found murdered, and is blamed for the murder by Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, Joker), Maximus is forced to become a slave. He is discovered by Proximo (Oliver Reed, Oliver!), and plots his path to vengeance as Commodus killed his family.
Having seen Gladiator again I was taken by the flaws of a lot of people within it. Maximus' flaw would appear to be blind loyalty, which perhaps could be considered complacency, being happy in his role next to Marcus. Commodus' flaw is the lack of resilience, which he conceals as having no mercy (or too much in his mind). Marcus could even consider perhaps a flaw in not raising Commodus in the way that he wanted to, and finding more of an ally in Maximus, which put the relationship between father and son in a way that became tragically fatal. I do not know how many others have seen that, but it stuck out to me when revisiting it now.
Where Commodus and Maximus parallel there, the performances diverge and become even more interesting. Crowe's work with the character finds solace and peace in looking at his past life when things are at their lowest for Maximus, but when they get to the battle arena and one of the first combats against the troops, he finds that past life with order, structure and people willing to fight to the death for him, something we did not see at the beginning of the film but presumed, and Crowe allows it to play out nicely. Phoenix' performance is just as quality, as someone whom you've seen his actions play out and you see that he is not fit for the throne, but the behind the scenes manipulations dive into a sociopathy that his fascinating to experience. Watching him play off Connie Nielsen (Wonder Woman), who plays Commodus' sister Lucilla, and serves as a commonality of sorts for Maximus (Lucilla has a son, played by Spencer Treat Clark, who would have been the same age as Maximus' son) helps keep all three characters' stories moving quite nicely.
The film gives us a chance to see some of the old guard of British actors as well; along with Harris and Reed, Derek Jacobi (Gosford Park) plays Gracchus, an ally of Commodus. John Shrapnel (Troy) is Gaius, and David Hemmings (Blow-Up) is Cassius, master of ceremonies for the battles. Scott gives the large ensemble their moments to shine, while balancing the epic nature of the production, and including some of his style in the process.
Gladiator roundly swept most of the awards at the turn of the 21st century because at the time there was not anything else around that could match it. And now a couple of decades later, not much luster has been lost from it; the grand nature of the film and the work of the leads to drive the story along with their respective excellent work makes for an enjoyable experience, whether it is for the first time or the fifth or sixth. If they keep adding new things to Gladiator every couple of years for me to go back and watch it again, I will not complain.
Without having the 2018 4K release near me, I'll presume that that 4K transfer was used for the theatrical and extended cuts is the one for this steel book, which is fine with me because this is a fine presentation. Image detail in clothing and exteriors looks great; a scene in a village shows tents that you can spot textures in, sun shining from behind people in fight scenes lighting Maximus, or behind his beard when he confronts Commodus is also sharp, as is the color reproductions for the film which allow John Mathieson's cinematography to shine. Tremendous stuff for someone who has not seen this in a while.
DTS:X soundtrack which is also presumably the same as last time, which I had not heard before, but do not have a complaint with, because along with the battle sequences, the thing I liked on the UHD was Hans Zimmer's soundtrack, you can pick up subtle power within the score as people ride horses, or engage in swordplay and the like. Dialogue is consistent through both cuts of the film and do not require user compensation, it is as perfect as can be.
You have three discs: one is the UHD, one is the Blu-ray with some special features, and the third is extras-only. It looks like everything from the 2018 release is brought over to this, which is a good thing. Scott, Mathieson and editor Pietro Scalia team up for a commentary on the theatrical cut, which gets into Scott's approach to a production and to the story itself, and gets into suggestions and ramifications made by the characters. The pre-production and production are touched upon, and shot breakdown and discarded casting ideas are hit on too, along with spotting practical vs. cg shots. It's a drier track than the one on the extended cut that Scott does with Crowe, as the two are more jovial and watch the film a little more. Crowe pokes fun at some of the moments on-screen, and they get into production and location recall during the film. Scott's thoughts on the older British ‘hell-raisers' is touched on, and they get into some of the same breakdowns, but also some story logic to boot. Both tracks are quality additions to the film. Along with the cuts of the film, there are the "Scrolss of Knowledge" and "Visions From Elysium," on the history and production, the latter of which moves to another disc.
The Special Features disc picks up the balance of the "Visions From Elysium," which include Crowe being witty at an audience Q&A, storyboard and visual effects breakdowns, storyboards, costumes and weaponry. Location scouts get the next look as the battle and fight sequences get examined for their intent and challenges, and production design parts of the film are covered to boot. Comparing this film to other epics is natural and included, as are moments on casting and landing Scott for the director chair. This stuff is fairly exhaustive, covering most things, but then you have "Strength and Honor" (3:16:50) which look at those things and so much more. Inspirations for the story and script, looking at the era where the fil is set, the historical accuracy and cinematography. Fighters and weapons are shown as are makeup, wardrobe and practical battle rehearsals, as were production challenges. Working with animals is hit upon as was the difficulty in filling in the rest of Reed's scenes after his death, and the critical and awards reception for the film is given some time, along with some final thoughts from most of the important players for the film. Top notch stuff, having never seen this feature before, may be the best I can recall.
There is more if you want it! "Image and Design" is another multi-part look at the film, this with production designer Arthur Max, who gets a segment (9:34) to talk about his approach to working on a scale such as this, and recalled his work on it, and it comes with two stills galleries. "Storyboard Demonstration" (13:37) includes artist Sylvain Despretz as he gets into his process, and how he sketches for Scott in terms of shot compositions. Multi-angle comparisons that include comparisons to final footage are included, along with a storyboard archive. There are some abandoned sequences and deleted scenes, some which include commentary by Scott or Despretz, and include things like alternate title sequences and the like. "The Aurelian Archives" appear to be segments from the time of the film's release, starting with a Making of for the film (25:03) that get into hair, clothes, locations and sets, along with more historical context and working with visual effects at that time. "Gladiator Games" (50:04) is the most historical-centric piece of the set, getting into battles and mood from the time, comparing gladiators to today's athletes, and how battles would go. The film serves to illustrate some of the things the segment gets into, so it's a neat tie-in. A segment on Zimmer's score is next (20:42), as he talks approach to scoring, how interested his orchestra was in it, and the different tones of music in the film. "An Evening with Russell Crowe" (27:15) is the previously mentioned Q&A, where Crowe cracks jokes, answers audience questions and tells a sweet story about his grandpa. "Maximus Uncut" (8:00) is that same thing, but on set, pre and post shooting, as he cracks people up and hams for the camera. "My Gladiator Journal" is Clark's diary turned into text stills, and "VFX Explorations" (23:50) get into Germania and Rome, showing the various attempts to illustrate. Two trailers (2:50), 22(!) TV spots (8:55) and a digital code are included, partridge in a pear tree is not.
There is a reason why Gladiator gets sought out by people for demonstration material for home theaters, because it looks great and sounds fantastic, and the Charles de Lauzirika-produced extras are a bar that nobody else has yet to clear. If you have not purchased the prior UHD release, know that the only difference between that one and this is the pretty packaging. But in a vacuum, this film stands hand in hand with its companion as one of the DVDTalk Collector Series as an absolute joy to experience again.