Wednesday, September 2, 2009

GLADIATOR: Blu-Ray (Universal/Dreamworks SKG 2000) Paramount Home Video

Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) effectively resurrects the Roman epic from oblivion and to thunderous effect. The film stars resident Aussie heartthrob, Russell Crowe as Maximus, a loyal General to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (the late and very great Richard Harris).

After a victorious campaign in Germania, Marcus decides that Maximus will succeed him on the throne; a move that does not bode well with the Emperor’s only son and legitimate heir, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix).

Determined to secure his birthright, Commodus murders his father before he has a chance to tell Maximus of his placement, and shortly thereafter frames Maximus for that murder. Although Commodus’ sister – and sometimes incestuous playmate, Lucilla (Connie Nielson) is both enamored by, and loyal to, her father and, by extension, Maximus, there is precious little she can do but acquiesce to Commodus’ sycophantic desire to be loved, in order to keep his psychotic wrath at bay.

Director Scott fills his screen with gorgeous, mesmerizing – and for the most part – stylized and desaturated glories of the coliseum and senate, its byways and winding streets of ancient Rome, and the reinvented rustic countryside peppered with barbarism and deceit.

This is the sort of grandiose potluck entertainment Hollywood and audiences have not seen for some time, and it provides stellar bits of business for quality British talents Derek Jacobi, David Schofield and the late Oliver Reed, as gladiator turned slave trade merchant Proximo.

Reed’s long overdue absence from the big screen seemed to be at an end when the actor suddenly died of a heart attack while filming, forcing director Ridley Scott into a minor quandary. Either recast the part or restructure the screenplay to account for Reed’s absence. Scott chose the latter, but only slightly, relying on the wizardry of computer generated images and use of stock footage and outtakes from scenes already shot, with a voice double to finish Reed’s performance. The results are unperceivable and satisfying.

Though, at least in this reviewer’s mind, nothing will ever quite rival the emotional swell of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), Gladiator is a close second on all accounts; a vivid, powerful and ultimately satisfying escapism that should continue to thrill audiences as long as there are fans of the sword and sandal epic.

Paramount’s new Sapphire Edition Blu-Ray DVD easily bests any of the previous incarnations made available to the home video consumer. The image is peerless and virtually without flaws. An incredible amount of fine detail is evident even during the darkest scenes, with superiorly balanced contrast levels that recreate even the most subtle and soft texture. The digital effects are seamlessly blended together with the full scale action.

The audio is 5.1 Tru HD Dolby with superb fidelity – seeming even more robust and nuanced than the DTS track from the previously issued disc. A chariot full of extras – most directly imported from the previously issued and lavishly appointed box set - include extensive documentaries on nearly every facet of the film’s production, with special attention paid to casting, production design and staging of set pieces like the action sequences in the coliseum.

My admiration for Paramount’s efforts on Blu-Ray in general continues to grow. The studio has raised the bar considerably on what it means to call any disc a ‘special edition’. This one is very special indeed! Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+

VIDEO/AUDIO
5+

EXTRAS
4.5

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