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"Are you not entertained?" Well, more or less...
on 9 September 2006
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 available separately 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, if you're buying on DVD it's still worth picking up the extended three-disc version, which boasts another impressive array of new extras and a comprehensive documentary, 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.
An even better deal is the Blu-ray release, which combines both cuts with all the extras from both editions - though it should be noted that the first pressing was so poor it had to be recalled and remastered, the problems have been thankfully addressed on subsequent copies.