DOWSE guide to the movies                                                                                         

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the net guide for creative minds

  New Century of Cinema

DOWSE Guide to the Movies
by Tony Lee editor of Pigasus Press


Director: Ridley Scott
149 minutes (15) widescreen 2.35:1
Universal DVD Region 2 retail
review by Steven Hampton

If you've seen the ad campaign you know the basic story. Russell Crowe portrays a Roman general sold into slavery and reduced to the violent struggles of life as a gladiator in the Colosseum, where he defies the emperor of Rome. Can he survive the various deadly games intended to kill him? Will he get the opportunity to take revenge on his betrayers, and the murderers of his family?
  This is a Ridley Scott film so, naturally, the city and landscapes are well worth seeing in themselves, never mind the spectacle of the opening battle sequence, or frequent bouts of action in the magnificently recreated Flavian amphitheatre. The blood 'n' thunder doesn't get in the way of the story, though, and the exceptional supporting cast (including Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, David Hemmings, Derek Jacobi) all do well here, giving fine performances. The top villain is new Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), while leading lady Connie Nielsen plays his sister and the object of incestuous desire. Both acquit themselves with composed styles in keeping with the film's extravagant depiction of drama, intrigue, passion and a sense of history in the making... instead of dwelling on hedonistic pleasures, as in Spartacus, the upfront religiosity of Ben-Hur, or the sheer depravity of Caligula.
  As the earnest new boy in cinema's class of noble warrior stars: think Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas (and even Arnold Schwarzenegger if we count in Conan The Barbarian!) Crowe manages to represent and preserve attributes of decency and honour amidst the barbarity and carnage of this feed-Christians-to-the-lions environment, and his considerable feat in Gladiator, playing a credible one-man slaughterhouse, has clearly endeared him as an admirable hero figure to a mixed gender audience. So, whatever else this powerhouse adventure has accomplished, it's certainly revealed immense depths in Crowe's brand of forceful valour. That aside, Scott's usually acute sense of pace seems to have deserted him on occasion, here, as scenes with the actors drag a little and his direction becomes ponderous, at the expense of action that's keenly trimmed to acquire the film's certificate. I'm not saying all of the cut 'hospital' gore should be reinstated, just that the running time feels too short for its subject matter and not quite violent enough for today's moviegoers. So, has Scott compromised his artistic vision for purely commercial, box-office concerns?
  One thing Gladiator does bring to this fascinating, often-filmed period is the technical proficiency of CG visuals. There's one stunning view of a crowded Rome (as if seen from a blimp's sky-camera at the Superbowl stadium) and the shot sets a new standard for big scale panoramic showstoppers. Yet here it's wisely used as a mere introduction to the ensuing action - not as a gratuitous display at a digital-artists' trade fair. For the most part, huge spectacular vistas like the clash against hordes of thuggish Germans are done life-size and for real, and these are every bit as impressively staged as the more closely personal, and character-focused, axe- and sword fights with Crowe, and a legion of stuntmen, bodybuilders and extras, playing soldiers, charioteers and enslaved combatants.
  We get to see many of the clichéd details, like the tyrannical Emperor's thumb signals, and the Roman army's innovative war machinery (of giant catapults, and walls of shields and spears), that we were all told of at school. But director Scott's expansive recreation of time and place ignores some obvious and overly familiar facts and legends that we all know, and this production attempts to show us the Roman Empire as it's never been seen before.
  DVD extras: two-disc set. 25-minute making-of documentary, a dozen deleted scenes with optional director's commentary, educational documentary on Roman blood sports, profile of composer Hans Zimmer, Spencer Treat Clark's production journal, cast and crew biographies, extensive storyboards and photo galleries, two trailers and TV spots, text production notes, scene finder (28 chapters), animated menus.

Steven Hampton

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