Best Picture Oscar-winners get a new lease on life with terrific 4k disc packages
By Jim Bray
One of the big hits of 2000, and one of the year's most honoured films, has now premiered on 4K disc in a 20th anniversary collectible that's a joy for the eyes and ears. And it's accompanied onto the video store shelves by an even better movie, the best film of 1995, and if you have the hardware in your home theatre, you really should check them out.
Dreamworks' Gladiator, now in a nice steelbook presentation from Paramount Pictures (there's also a conventional plastic-cased edition), is an epic tale of honour, loyalty, bravery, lust, and treachery during the Roman Empire. It's kind of like Spartacus meets Ben-Hur in a way, as our hero – played in an Oscar-winning performance by Russell Crowe – is betrayed and left for dead (well, they thought he was dead…) but then, after a circuitous route that sees him go from slave to hero, he gets his revenge on his tormentor, who also just happens to be Caesar.
Not much of a Caesar, mind you. Joaquin Phoenix' Commodus (yes, his name is inspired by bathroom furniture!) is a poisonous sort, and he sentenced Maximus (Crowe) to death because his (Commodus') father Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) had informed him that Maximus, not him, would take the throne upon his death.
Fortunately, you can't keep a good General down, and Maximus's circuitous journey to revenge sees him become a top gladiator, owned by and working for a slave trainer called Proximo (Oliver Reed). This brings him back to Rome, where he is made to fight to the death in the Colosseum for the enjoyment of the bread and circuses crowd.
Aided by Commodus' sister (Connie Neilson) – who has always loved Maximus – they hatch a scheme by which to wreak vengeance on Commodus while restoring the Roman Empire to a state envisioned by the earlier, dead Caesar – a republic instead of a compete dictatorship.
While arguably not as grand as Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, Gladiator is a terrific film nonetheless, with a truly heroic lead and an interesting and involving plot that keeps you hanging on through the movie's two and a half hours. And those two point five hours never drag.
Ridley Scott, as usual, has made a visually beautiful film and it works well on many levels. Scott has built his cinematic career on his ability to create believable movie worlds (Blade Runner, Alien, Black Rain, The Martian, etc.), and so his 2000 Best Picture Oscar-winner looks fantastic to begin with.
And that's why I wanted to see the 4K version, and the UHD HDR treatment really elevates Gladiator to the next level of video quality. It's quite exquisite.
Now, take all of that and make it even better and you get Mel Gibson's Braveheart, the other Oscar-winner now out on 4K disc in a conventional or steelbook incarnation. Braveheart was only Gibson's second directorial outing, but he managed to create an epic even grander and more compelling than Gladiator – and many, many other so-called epics. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons it won Best Picture for 1995.
Gibson also stars, as Scot William Wallace. He wanted peace and a family but he savoured freedom more and this takes him from being a single voice in the wilderness to a leader of the Scots' people (if not the corrupt elite) in a revolt against their English overlords led by the horribly nasty Edward Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan in an exquisitely evil performance).
As a way to keep those Pesky Kilt-Wearers in line, Longshanks reinstitutes a policy by which the English Stooges put in place to keep the PKW in line will help him by culling the Scot herd. To do this, his Stooges grab women from their wedding celebrations forcibly and take them for themselves for that night. This not only makes it possible that these Scots' first born will only be half Scot, it's incredibly humiliating for the women and the men they've just finished marrying. And the greater community that stands there watching helplessly.
This is merely one scene near the beginning but thanks to Gibson's skill as a filmmaker, it's quite touching – and really maddening. In fact, despite the grand battle scenes (and they're really, really grand, and violent and graphic), there are a lot of extremely touching moments in Braveheart. Heck, I had tears welling in my eyes several times watching the film, I'm embarrassed to admit.
Unlike Crowe, Gibson didn't win Best Actor, but he puts in a damn fine performance anyway, right down to a decent brogue. But his is just one of many fine performances in a truly epic tale that's so rare to see any more unless it's a comic book movie with plenty of CGI effects. In short, an epic the way they used to be.
As for the 4K Disc presentation, both films look very much like film, including grain, but it's never obtrusive, and the colour and black levels are quite fine. And the detail, wow! Check out the costumes, the textures on the sets and props, the wear and tear – it all looks really good, and the overall effect is one of those "pop off the screen" films that can really stretch your home theatre equipment to its limits.
Maybe it's the different colour palette, maybe it's the gorgeous Scottish and Irish scenery, I don't know – but as great as Gladiator looks, Braveheart basically pops right off the screen and sits itself right in your lap (so make sure you're wearing clean pants!). I watched both films on a 75 inch QLED TV and it almost seemed as if you could reach right into the screen and touch the actors, though of course that would lead to fingermarks on your screen and that isn't a good thing at all.
I've seen more modern films that don't look as good in 4K. Take my recent review of The Invisible Man as an example.
Speaking of colour, the blood – of which there's plenty – looks very real, very real indeed. To quote Alex, the "hero" of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange when referring to on-screen blood, "It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen." Well these films are perfect examples of that sentiment.
The battles in Braveheart are, in my never humble opinion, more realistic than Gladiator's. Maybe it's just how they were shot, maybe it's the grander scale overall, but when the opposing lines of soldiers converge in Gibson's film, it's enough at times to turn your stomach. It's violence like this that turns off many people (my wife wouldn't watch either movie, for that reason), but I don't believe it was gratuitous. No, it almost seems as if the battles of Wallace and his ragtag band are staged not necessarily as "Hollywood Epicness" would want it, but as it would have happened back in the early 14th century. Just like the sets, costumes, ordnance, etc.
So, if you don't like blood spattering all over the place, these might not be your films. If you do like it, however, you might want to try out Gladiator's extended edition.
The audio is wonderful as well, and both films' soundtracks will fill your home theatre room beautifully. Noise and sounds surround you, but dialogue is always clear (some of the accents in Braveheart excepted, but you can't blame Dolby or DTS for that!) They don't have the low frequency effects of some films, but I daresay that's because they're period pieces and so there are no booming rockets or guns or spaceships or cars, or… But the bass that is there, is clean and clear and deep. Just take a listen when the horses start thundering across the landscape, for example.
Gladiator is presented in DTS:X Master Audio, which – like Braveheart's Dolby Atmos – is backward compatible to their respective DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD ancestors.
Both of Paramount's 4K packages include three discs, two Blu-rays and the 4K UHD disc, as well as a code for a digital download.
Gladiator's 4K disc gives you both versions of the film: the 155-minute original version and – for those who want Maximum Maximus – the 170-minute extended edition. That disc also includes a few extras via a couple of commentary tracks and, for the extended edition, an introduction by director Scott.
Blu-ray one is basically a 1080p version of the 4K disc, but the third disc is chock full of extras and they're really worth seeing if you're a fan of the film, Crowe or Scott. It's all stuff Paramount released before, but I spent an entire afternoon going through it and it was fascinating. I also came away with new respect for Russell Crowe, who was really "just" an up and comer at the time.
Braveheart's 4K disc includes a director's commentary and the 1080p disc also adds a "Braveheart timeline." The real goodies are on the second Blu-ray, and they're excellent. As with Gladiator, it isn't new stuff (it's recycled from earlier video versions), but it's well worth your time nonetheless.
Paramount has also released both 4K movies in one box, but I don't think you get anything other than the films themselves.
I'm really glad Paramount has done these films justice in their 4K editions. Sure, the extras are old, but that doesn't matter – it's the films and the exquisite audio and video experience they impart into the home theatre that matter, and both of these Oscar-winners are well worth your time.
Copyright 2020 Jim Bray