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Over the last decade pseudo-historical epics have been rife in Hollywood, but whereas the first batch—most prominently Braveheart and Gladiator—hit their mark, the most recent additions have not been quite as satisfying. Many have failed because of the choice in lead actor—Kingdom of Heaven, Alexander and Troy suffered—and were all distinctly lacking in several other respects. We get bigger budgets, bigger battles, bigger casts but that does not make them better. In terms of gladiatorial combat, many would cite Spartacus as being the defining effort in cinema, capturing the desperate struggle of a warrior to be more than a weapon and showcasing superb battles both on grand and more focussed stages. Gladiator updated the classic story with a different take but much the same spirit and marks one of the last decent historical epics to have reached the big screen.

Gladiator: Extended Special Edition
Roman General Maximus has the love of his Emperor and the respect of his men. Leading them into battle one more time against the vicious barbarians, he is on the eve of taking over from his ageing Emperor's empire, thus converting it to a more democratic era, when the Emperor's blood heir, his soulless cowardly son Commodus, puts his own dastardly plans into action. Maximus is left for dead, his family slaughtered and his Emperor's legacy ruined but through a twist of fate he ends up as a masked gladiator wielding his weapons in a huge coliseum for the pleasure of the very man who is responsible for it all. But will Maximus be able to avenge the deaths of his wife and son, overthrow the treacherous new Emperor and instate the democratic state as was always intended?

Shot with maturity by Ridley Scott, the man behind such indisputable classics as Alien and Blade Runner (and also the disappointing Kingdom of Heaven), we get an epic tale told from a very personal perspective, making it easy to relate to despite the vastly distant society it depicts. It is a time of great change in the Roman empire but the political feuds and convoluted governmental machinations are largely eschewed in favour of following one brave soul as he struggles in his one last chance to put things right. Of course Scott needed not only an epic cast to populate his vision but also a heroic lead to focus the journey and give viewers somebody to root for.

Now I know Russell Crowe isn't everybody's cup of tea. Sometimes his acting is over the top, a matter made worse by the fact that in real life he has been caught behaving like an immature thug, but if you can overlook these things you will normally find his performances very engaging. Master and Commander was a tremendous movie and even his smaller efforts like Proof of Life and his debut Romper Stomper rely largely on his extremely captivating lead effort. Here he is simply perfect as Maximus, portraying this fictional hero set within a historically accurate environment with such conviction that the end result is what many since have striven to create but seldom succeeded. Brad Pitt's Achilles had no soul, Colin Farrell's Alexander had no presence and in fact only Eric Bana's Hector has even come close to the power and charisma behind Maximus.

Gladiator: Extended Special Edition
The rest of the cast are equally well-chosen, with Richard Harris on good form as the doomed Emperor (a part which was poorly mirrored by Peter O'Toole in Troy), Joaquin Phoenix perfectly creepy as the flawed son Commodus, who also has a disturbing lust for his own sister, and Connie Nielsen bringing the requisite amount of grace and glamour to the part of the sister, Lucilla. There are several old Brit veterans amidst the Roman political elite and a couple of other familiar faces amongst the gladiators—not least the late Oliver Reed as Maximus' gladiatorial master then mentor, Proximo. They all do a fantastic job in their respective roles but it is really Crowe's gladiator that brings it all together.

Of course the movie is not without flaws. Despite the integrity of the plot, there are frequent concepts that do not work, characters who infuriatingly stroll blindly towards their own downfall and perhaps most notably scenes where huge distances are covered in record time (Exactly how many countries does Maximus cross through between his last battle for the Romans and his recruitment as a gladiator?). But the end result is still one of the best historical epics to have graced our screens in some time. Perhaps we're not yet in the league of Spartacus, but Gladiator came closer than any subsequent movie has come to forging a heroic, worthy cinematic vision.

This new extended edition adds an extra seventeen minutes to the already long runtime, taking it yet closer to a three-hour duration. Despite none of the extra scenes being particularly notable and most of them being familiar from the extras of the original Gladiator release, they create a slightly more satisfying film. We get a few more political discussions amongst the Roman elite, more demented, self-destructive behaviour from Commodus, more interactions amongst the gladiators and, of course, much more of Oliver Reed's Proximo. His part is fleshed out in much greater detail but not to the detriment of the rest of the film, instead only adding to it an extra layer. I'm not sure it makes it a more worthy movie, a distinctly better movie or a more entertaining movie but it just seems to paint a nicer, more well-rounded picture.

The presentation is superb. Given a broad 2.35:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen that is seemingly identical to that which adorned the previous release, there is very little here to criticise. Detail is resoundingly good throughout, with crystal clarity maintained during both the grandiose set pieces and the face-to-face confrontations. There is no noticeable edge enhancement, no sign of digital artefacting and grain is nowhere to be seen. The colour scheme is perfect for the setting, with rich golden sand, pristine white togas and deep crimson blood, every colour depicted perfectly. Finally there are no signs of any print damage whatsoever, rounding off a pretty-much benchmark transfer.

Gladiator: Extended Special Edition
The audio track that we get is similarly amazing, a Dolby Digital 5.1 effort to set standards by. Right from the outset we find dialogue clear and coherent, with the powerful score by Hans Zimmer resounding across the rears and motivating you throughout. The effects range from the tumultuous first clash to the roar of the lions used in the gladiatorial games, though nothing matches the roar of the crowd at the coliseum. It is a powerful, pervasive mix that surrounds you constantly with a barrage of noises, immersing you in the potency of the epic tale and fuelling your interest in it. The one downside with this release is that—between the extended footage and the commentary—we seem to have lost the DTS track, which was reportedly even better than the benchmark Dolby 5.1 track that we do get.

Disc one contains a brief introduction to this new cut by director Ridley Scott who does not really do the film a great deal of justice by stating that it is not a director's cut—that was the theatrical edition—instead this is just the theatrical director's cut with a few extra scenes put back in for fun (and to make the studios lots of money). It certainly does not get your hopes up about this new version.

Next we get a brand new commentary with star Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott—which is probably the best collaboration you would hope for from most movies. And as director and star go, these two aren't bad at all, with Crowe pompously promoting his over-inflated ego with a barrage of anecdotes from the production and Scott occasionally being allowed to offer a more technical perspective to the proceedings. They get on quite well and they have a nice little banter and even a laugh about some aspects of the production—in particular the drunken nights that were spent on set. We get characters fleshed out in greater detail and explanations behind some of the scenes and shots, one or both of the two contributors talking almost throughout.

The first disc also has an interesting fact track which employs pop-up captions to tell you bits of trivia about the production. Some of the facts are quite interesting—the locations used, the original script ideas, the truth behind the fiction—whereas others are potentially worthless. Overall, it is probably best to listen to the commentary track with the fact track active so you are getting double doses of information.

Gladiator: Extended Special Edition
Disc two is entitled ‘Strength and Honour: Creating the World of Gladiator’, which is basically three hours' worth of making-of footage. Split into seven sections, it can only ever be approached bit by bit—challenging Lord of the Rings in terms of depth of documentary. The first section is ‘Tale of the Scribes’, a thirty-four minute featurette about script development, then we get ‘The Tools of War’ where they spend thirteen minutes looking at the various weapons and armour of the era that were replicated for the movie. ‘Attire of War’ looks at costume design with twenty minutes of interviews with some cast members on set and in costume, and with the relevant designers. ‘The Heat of Battle’ is an hour-long collection of production journals featuring lots of behind the scenes footage (including some interesting time spent with the now almost extinct Bengal tigers) and yet more interviews. ‘Shadows and Dust’ takes a twenty-five minute detailed look at the technology behind resurrecting Proximo, utilising stills, goofs and some saddening on-set interviews with the late Oliver Reed. ‘The Glory of Rome’ is a twenty-minute visual effects featurette showing the CG they used to make the Roman landscapes come alive and build the coliseum and finally ‘Echoes in Eternity’ looks at the release and impact of the movie, giving you twenty minutes of Oscars, speeches, publicity and press guff.

Last up on the second disc there is an interesting Easter egg (a strange emblem on the bonus features menu down at the bottom left) which offers three minutes' worth of interview snippets with members of the cast and crew, talking about sequels. Despite it being extremely interesting to hear about, I cannot see how it could possibly work. Their ideas of doing a prequel or taking a more grandiose Godfather II style approach to a sequel are all nonsense because you cannot get over the end of the first movie. That said, if we're going to see classics like Carlito's Way being violated so the studios can rake in more cash, another Gladiator film simply cannot be that far off.

The third disc is split into two sections: ‘Image & Design’ and ‘Supplemental Archive’. Within the first of these sections we get further subdivision into ‘Production Design’, ‘Storyboarding’, ‘Costume Design Galleries’ and ‘Photo Galleries’, the first two featuring interviews along with stills and the last two just being galleries. The ‘Supplemental Archive’ also contains several subsections—‘Trailers’, ‘VFX’ and ‘Deleted Footage’. The twenty-minute VFX Explorations section is devoted to the sequences in Germania and Rome, detailing the CG used to make history come alive and the deleted footage section contains both abandoned sequences and deleted scenes that most who have the original Gladiator release will be familiar with. Amongst these we get three conceptual additions that are made up of some extensive storyboards followed by a selection of outtakes that you can relate to the boards, all of which have optional commentary by the director. Of the three concepts—the alternate opening titles, the Blood Vision section and the Rhino Fight—the third is the most interesting and would have made an excellent additional action scene in the movie. It's just a shame that the CG rhino they created looked too much like Dumbo.

Gladiator: Extended Special Edition
Gladiator was one of the last great historical epics, with a superb cast and a captivating story which has now been augmented by some extra footage into an even more sprawling effort. Boasting the same fantastic transfer we got for the last edition along with one of the two excellent tracks, the new footage alone is not reason enough to upgrade. However, we get not one but two extra discs packed with supplementary material, along with a commentary on the extended cut. I cannot think of anything else they could have included to seduce buyers in (aside from a completed rhino sequence or the retained DTS track) and those without a copy of this film must surely purchase this release instantly. Forget Troy, Kingdom of Heaven and all the inferior successors to the throne, Gladiator rocks, and with one of the best DVD releases that I have ever come across, it surely warrants a position in most DVD collections.