Spartacus review

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"Betrayed by the Romans. Forced into slavery. Reborn as a Gladiator. The classic tale of the Republic's most infamous rebel comes alive in the graphic and visceral new series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Torn from his homeland and the woman he loves, Spartacus is condemned to the brutal world of the arena where blood and death are primetime entertainment. But not all battles are fought upon the sands. Treachery, corruption, and the allure of sensual pleasures will constantly test Spartacus. To survive, he must become more than a man. More than a gladiator. He must become a legend."

There it is kids, straight from the horse's mouth. Starz presents the ultra-violent, über sexed up version of Spartacus, premiering Friday, January 22nd.

If HBO's Rome taught us anything, it was that Rome was a swinging place way back when. With Spartacus, Starz has upped the ante. They've set out to make the most provocative show on television, pushing any and all envelopes. Yes, it's colorful. Yes, blue screen is the new hieroglyphics. It has plenty of cartoon action violence and sexy naked time, and sweaty, hard bodies to boot. But is it any good? That's debatable.

I have seen the first four episodes, so this is all based on what should be the first month of the show. I am (slightly amused by) Spartacus. I just needed to slip that in there.

Steven DeKnight co-created this version of the classic tale with the nerdiest duo to ever tackle television, Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert. The Raimi/Tapert team, as we all know, brought us the classics Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and my current guiltiest of all pleasures, Legend of the Seeker. These guys know their campy TV, but Spartacus is way outside the Raimi/Tapert box. No tongue in cheek, no silly sound effects—this is the most serious of their TV shows.

Steven DeKnight wrote the first two episodes, and sadly they are the weakest of those that I've seen. I claim this as fact, because I've also been reading the comic, the first issue of which is written by DeKnight, and it's the weakest issue. Spartacus suffers in the same way Star Wars suffers. The more the fanboy creator is involved, the further it is drug down. It is best left in the hands of a neutral party.
The dialog is at points laughable when it's not cringe worthy, as if it were written by a seventeen year-old boy who thought what he wrote sounded totally fucking hard core. There was liberal use of the f-word, and many, many times it was completely unnecessary. Not that I have a problem with the potty language -- I swear so much in a day I could put a trucker to shame -- but it just seemed like the words were being used just for the sake of making the dialog sound hard core.

However, this scripting of Spartacus has led me to my new motto: When in doubt just say cock. When I watch something like Spartacus, I expect a bit of a poetic twist on the dialog. You know, like the ancient stories, a little elegance and some flamboyance. Anyone can scratch down a line like "You're an asshole" onto a piece of paper; that takes no thought at all, and less to act it out. It's boring is what it is, and it doesn't fit the era in which the story takes place. Call someone a loathsome, boorish cur, unfit to dine off the slop of pigs, and you've got yourself some flair.

The third episode, written by Brent Fletcher, is a huge step up from the first two. There's still an abundance of swear words flying around, but it is notably lessened and used in a more proper manner. I honestly wasn't sure if I wanted to watch the last two episodes for fear that they too would be an hour of verbal assault, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much more I cared about what was going on. The characters started to develop more both in depth and in relationship to other characters.

I've always been in favor of hiring unknown actors to play big roles, just to see what other talent happens to be in the world; that and sometimes hiring a big name actor just means you'll get a big name in the credits and nothing more. Andy Whitfield is Spartacus, but he's no Kirk Douglas. I can buy Whitfield as the contested gladiator, but rebellion leader? I don't know. When it comes to leading a pack of gladiators to rise up against their masters and Rome itself, Kirk Douglas and Russell Crowe own the persona.

It almost seems as if Whitfield is taking this far more seriously than it is. It's a Raimi/Tapert joint, dude. Lucy Lawless knows the drill. Ham it up a bit. He really is acting like this is his cross to bear, and it's depressingly serious. The only liveliness exerted by Whitfield is when he's slicing people up in the arena, which is fun and all, but it would be nice to see some of that feistiness put into his non-violent interactions with other characters.

And that leads me to Erin Cummings, who plays Spartacus's wife, Sura, and has no role other than to appear in sex scenes, at least in the DeKnight episodes. After watching those first few episodes, everyone will know Erin Cummings on a very personal level. Later she appears clothed and as a disembodied spirit to whom Spartacus speaks, but still very little actual role.

I really don't see the dynamic of the relationship between the two. They have sex, a lot, and that seems to be it. They share no powerful dialog scenes, hell they share barely any dialog at all. Spartacus is fighting to get his wife back, okay, but the relationship between the two characters is so one dimensional that Sura could easily be replaced in Spartacus's arms by any slave girl. I can only assume that the bond between the two will strengthen as the show goes on, or I hope it does.

Spartacus isn't without its graces. Perhaps its biggest saving grace is John Hannah. Most would know his from his turn as the fortune seeking brother in the Mummy movies. In Spartacus, Hannah plays Batiatus, the owner of the gladiator school to which Spartacus belongs. Even with the gutter language heavy script, Hannah manages to deliver his lines with charisma. There's always the classic excuse I hear about "doing the best they can with what they've been given." It seems that John Hannah is proving that adage correct. If anyone is exhibiting their acting chops, it's John.

And where there's Tapert, there is Lawless. Let's hear it for the queen of the nerd kingdom, Lucy Lawless. In all honesty, Lucy's part, as John Hannah's counterpart, Lucretia, could have been played by anyone, but it's nice to have Lucy Lawless back on TV. Of course there are some parts of Lucy that I don't know I ever wanted to see. For someone who grew up watching her on TV, it's like seeing your aunt naked. She's a little bit Lady Macbeth mixed with a real housewife of Orange County. Is it a compliment that Lucy plays that mix well? I don't know.

And of course the best part about the show is the gladiator fight scenes, when they happen. This the show does well. It's what most of us are paying to see, and it's money well spent. Think of the early arena fights in Gladiator, when Maximus is still all ornery and pissed off, then add some of that slow-mo 300 sword action with lots of CGI blood that sprays out every time someone gets hit. Hell, they don't even need to get hit, someone could give someone else a vicious stink eye glare and blood would explode all over the screen.

It's overdone, almost to the point of hilarity, but it's also the draw. This is a story about gladiators; arena fights are the meat and potatoes of the genre. They have to be good, and gory. No one wants to see a wimpy gladiator slap fight. So far, however, there has been a lot of training, until the fourth episode, which is so brutally violent it makes up for any lack of substantial limb hacking in the first three.

Okay, I generally dislike the term "visually stunning" because it's what people say when a movie or TV show has nothing else to rely on other than the CGI, cinematography or art direction. Well, I can say that about the first two episodes, and partially about three and four. It is colorful, and all the CGI buildings and terrain are lovely, and even the blood in a way is artfully done, but that scripting. But I guess Starz is relying on this show to get better, and all the hype to pay off in ratings because it's already been signed for a second season before the premiere of the first.

When I first saw the preview for this at Comic Con 2009 I couldn't wait to see it. I was even contemplating upping my cable package to see it, although now I'd consider this a rental series. I hear Netflix is playing the first episode on their stream instantly option, so you can always catch it there. If you've got the Starz channel, go ahead and watch it; it wasn't horrible, just not as awesome as it seems. Many people are comparing it to 300 which I can see, but I think it's more like an oversexed and lower brow version of Rome.

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