'Spartacus: Blood and Sand' review: Bloody sexy gladiator drama
Created by Steven S. DeKnight, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" debuts Friday, Jan. 22 on Starz and is loosely based on what little is known about the warrior Spartacus before his role in the Gladiator War against the Roman Republic. It's a superhero origin story set in Ancient Rome, if you will.
Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) is a free man who crosses the wrong Roman army leader, is parted from his wife Sura (Erin Cummings) and condemned to die by the hand of gladiators. When he defeats all four of his foes, however, an ambitious owner of a ludus (gladiatorial school) purchases him in hopes of turning Spartacus into a successful and profitable fighter.
The series initially feels like an homage and an attempt to outdo "300." Besides using green screen technology, "Spartacus" embraces the most primal behaviors: violence and sex. The first episode alone keeps up a brisk pace: Open with a gladiator fight, move to a sex scene six minutes in, follow that with a bigger battle, a fist fight, two more sex scenes and ... well, you get the idea. If bodies are a-grappling, "Spartacus" is where it's happening.
The violence, not your average choreographed hack-fest, is a larger-than-life character in itself. Simulated "helmet cams" allow us to see the gladiators grimacing as they fight. The camera stays on the carnage, never cutting away from a person getting impaled, decapitated or de-limbed. In fact, even more technology is used to glamorize the sprays, spurts, fountains, pools and Rorschach blots of blood.
Although there's enough realism to elicit an occasional wince, the violence is overblown enough to allow for some desensitization. Perhaps this isn't a good thing in real life, but this is supposed to be escapist TV, not a stomach-turning endeavor. In a way, this helps the viewers identify more with those Romans who flocked to the arenas to watch dehumanizing gladiator battles. The warriors were toned, talented bits of meat walking around, ready for a glorious butchering. You know, entertainment.
"Spartacus" will no doubt land on Mr. Skin's all-time TV favorites list. Bare breasts are as common as bared shoulders, and apparently double-stick tape had not yet been invented. Sex, everybody's having it -- whether it's a beautiful, almost balletic loving union between man and wife or earthy, less sentimental encounters between a socially superior Roman and a slave. There are plenty of public displays as well, sometimes for deliberate, voyeuristic purposes. You've been warned ... or enticed as the case may be.
Eventually, the series makes way for just enough plot to give our poor, overstimulated eyes a rest. There's a bit of political maneuvering, fierce rivalries, the examination of slavery vs. free will, ludus-yard hazing and even romance. In fact, the heart of the show is Spartacus' desire to reclaim his wife, and for this he must become a legendary gladiator to gain leverage with his owner.
Whitfield has all the goods to make an admirable Spartacus. Physically, he's believable as a plucky and spry fighter. The humility and humor in his performance gives Spartacus that dose of humanity we need to truly identify with a hero. He's not a loud or flashy star, rather one who has a compelling, quiet strength.
The supporting performances are equally strong with a balance of cartoony stereotyping and nuanced moments. John Hannah is believable as an ambitious but personable ludus owner, and his passionate, hair-changing wife Lucretia is played by fanboy favorite Lucy Lawless (whose talents were no doubt acquired from executive producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, who were there for her "Xena" days). Lawless gives a glint to Lucretia's eye that hints at the mischief to come.
Other standouts include Viva Bianca, who plays a spoiled senator's daughter drawn into Lucretia's illicit world, and Peter Mensah and Jai Courtney, who play Spartacus' instructor and sole friend at the ludus, respectively.
"Spartacus" is a rousing, addictive show that doesn't tax with too much moral complexity. It doesn't just try to reel us in with insane amounts of violence and sex, but also to appeal to our most basic, idealized views of how the world should work. True love, justice and freedom will win out, dammit, and Spartacus is our boy to make them happen.
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Photo credits: Starz