It may have revived the big screen epic - and particularly the Roman epic, which had laid dormant since the disastrous failure of 1964's the Fall of the Roman Empire, which this film often copies to less effect - but Gladiator was never really in the top rank of big screen epics.
The script problems that plagued the production are also apparent in a lack of focus that is always a problem when people start building the sets before they have scenes to play in them. There's so much attention to detail in creating the world of the Roman Empire that the supporting characters sometimes get leftovers in this theatrical cut (the extended version corrects that to some degree). Even Russell Crowe's personal journey seems at times poorly developed, reducing the film from a story that affects an empire to a simple revenge story, and a somewhat disappointing one at that. The climactic fight with Commodus is still a major disappointment not just because it's so underwhelmingly staged but because, unlike The Fall of the Roman Empire, the film it relentlessly plagiarises, Commodus is never a credible threat: where Anthony Mann gave him foolhardy courage, Ridley Scott has implied he's a coward throughout until even a wounded hero can't even the odds.
That said, the dialogue never descends to the banalities of 1492: Conquest of Paradise, although the visuals never reach its heights (indeed, John Mathieson's frequently muted photography is often less than impressive). Some of the less vaunted CGI shots are not all that they could be either - the tiger was fine, but the flames in one shot in the battle scene weren't moving in synch with the panning shot while the CGI of the procession into Rome looked less than convincing.
Caveats aside, it's certainly enjoyable (Marcus Aurelius' death scene aside, an ineffectual lift from Blade Runner), and both the character and the film's attitude to death - a reward, reuniting him with his family in Elysium - makes it almost unique in the genre. Despite a handful of strong scenes, it's not great, never reaching the highs of The Fall of the Roman Empire or even its own opening battle sequence (too many of the arena scenes are so over-edited they feel like they've been hacked at with a gladius at times), but it is good and the two-disc DVD set boasts a very impressive array of extras - audio commentary by Ridley Scott, John Mathieson and Pietro Scalia, 11 deleted scenes and montage of deleted footage, featurettes on the making of the film and the history of gladiatorial combat, storyboard comparisons and conceptual art, TV spots and trailers and even an Easter egg of CGI test footage for a deleted rhino fight.
However, the Blu-ray includes both the original theatrical version and the extended , complete with all the extras from both DVD sets (deleted scenes, comprehensive documentary, featurettes, trailers, etc) but more importantly doesn't feel as disjointed or quite so disappointing as the theatrical version. It's not just that it has more room to breathe, more that the additional footage, particularly the scenes away from Maximus where the future of Rome takes center-stage, raise the stakes beyond the simplistic revenge tale the theatrical version all too often settled for. It's still no Fall of the Roman Empire, but it is a more satisfying film than the one released in cinemas. While the first standalone pressing was so poor it had to be recalled and remastered, the problems have been thankfully addressed on subsequent copies, including this double-bill set with Robin Hood.
Despite a convoluted and tortuous pre-production history and the participation of two of the more oafish bigheads in the business, Ridley and Russell's Robin Hood is a surprisingly impressive and enjoyable medieval epic that manages to find a new string for the old longbow by placing a prequel to the Hooded Man's outlaw days in a relatively accurately drawn Middle Ages with some contemporary relevance. Admittedly it's going to mean a lot more to British and European audiences, but it's hard not to notice that in its unloving royal siblings Richard (a gruff and bluff Danny Huston) and John (an impressive Oscar Isaac) there's more than a little Tony Blair - vain, bankrupting his abandoned country in unnecessary foreign wars and delusionally regarding himself as a pretty straight kind of guy yet quick to punish anyone who tells him the truth - and Gordon Brown - a petty and spiteful ruler who briefly wins over his people with promises he promptly drops as soon as his throne is secure and is woefully inadequate at turning the economy around. The film even uses the infamous political kiss-of-death phrase 'resigning to spend more time with his family' when honest chancellor William Marshall (William Hurt, looking surprisingly like the director) finds himself out of a job.
There are more nods to James Goldman than Errol Flynn here: Eleanor of Aquitaine gets a few bits of Lion in Winterish sniping without the barbed wit (though John's retort "Spare me your farmyard memories, mother: they're not real and I don't understand them" comes close) while the film begins, like Robin and Marion, with Robin and Little John in the King's bad books for being a bit too honest as the Lionheart loots his way back from the Crusades. There's an even stronger element of Martin Guerre to the tale as well as it finds a plausible explanation for Robin's twin origins as the peasant Robin Longstrides and the dispossessed noble Robin of Locksley, doing a neat job of tying in the origins of the Magna Carta and civil disobedience to the legend in the process.
There's plenty of action too, ending with not one but two big battles, though the grand finale is a bit too Saving Private Robin at times and Cate Blanchet's presence leading a small band of feral children in the climax seems a clumsy contrivance to put her in jeopardy merely so she can be rescued (she's far more convincingly placed heroically centre stage in a raid on her village). Throughout, the money's on the screen, with little apparent CGI - the sets, while not extravagant, have weight to them - and if it could use a few more extreme long shots at times, it makes good use of the British landscape for once. Thankfully Scott doesn't overdo the stylistics or the MTV editing here, settling for good old-fashioned storytelling and even throwing in that long-absent favorite, the burning map montage sequence. As for Crowe, while his accent briefly makes a detour to Newcastle before settling in Barnsley for an initially ill-advised Michael Parkinson impersonation (so much so you almost expect him to say "So, Richard - this Crusades business. Bit of a lark or is there a more serious side to it?"), but luckily he grows in stature alongside the character. And satisfyingly, this film is a real journey, not just from France to England but from opportunist to idealist to legend as Robin's progress mirrors that of the character's evolution from the thug of the early ballads to the champion of the oppressed of modern lore.
While it isn't as good or as ambitious as Kingdom of Heaven, this Robin Hood is still surprisingly damn good entertainment. Unfortunately Universal have decided to treat DVD buyers as second-class citizens again in an attempt to get them to upgrade to BluRay, giving them only the extended (by 16 minutes) cut, which gives more time to the feral children and adds a brief action scene and a comic scene between Robin and Marion but offers no major structural changes as per the Kingdom of Heaven director's cut, and leaving the original theatrical version and the choice extras for the BluRay. Just to rub salt in the wounds, aside from the picture-in-picture featurettes on the theatrical version, the extras disc on the BD release is actually a DVD disc, meaning they could have easily included the 10 deleted scenes with introduction by editor Pietro Scalia, one-hour documentary Rise and Rise Again, 6 TV spots, teaser trailer and full theatrical trailer on a two-disc release. The BD also has a picture-in-picture series of featurettes and interviews running sporadically throughout the theatrical version of the movie.