'Spartacus: Blood and Sand,' premiering Friday on Starz
The puzzling new-generation edition of "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," a Starz network original series beginning Friday, takes the well-worn tale of the rebellious Roman-era slave and splatters it with flagons of blood, drunken-sailor language and enough sex and nudity to make Tiger Woods blush. Toto, we're not in "I, Claudius," or even "Rome," anymore.
The problem, though, is that this "Spartacus" is so over the top that it begs to be considered as total camp. The chiseled gladiators who are just one Bowflex and a protein shake away from modernity, the low-budget CGI effects and the wavering accents from all over the English-speaking world — not to mention the presence of director Sam Raimi ("Spider-Man," "The Evil Dead," "Hercules," "Xena: Warrior Princess") as executive producer and Xena herself, Lucy Lawless, as a scheming wife — help with that impression.
Yet it's played with a completely straight face with hardly a nudge or a wink. And the level of violence — even though done in a stylized, obviously fake, video-game fashion — is not for the squeamish.
Australian newcomer Andy Whitfield is Spartacus, a warrior from Thrace (a region that's now part of Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria) who's enslaved by duplicitous Roman commander Glaber (Craig Parker), separated from his loving wife Sura (Erin Cummings), and sent to fight in gladiatorial games in the Italian town of Capua.
Against all odds, Spartacus survives a grueling, four-on-one bout and is handed over to a struggling gladiatorial school run by Batiatus (John Hannah from "The Mummy" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral") and his far-from-faithful wife, Lucretia (Lawless), who's having a fling with hunky, 12-pack-abs gladiator and Spartacus nemesis Crixus (Manu Bennett). What keeps Spartacus going is the struggle to be reunited with his wife, who also has been sold into slavery.
The styles of speaking and acting vary enough to be distracting. Shot in New Zealand, "Spartacus" veers wildly among English, American and antipodean accents. Meanwhile, Whitfield — though he can handle the physical demands of the role — doesn't radiate the presence to be Spartacus. It's up to the supporting players, such as Hannah, to bring some sense of well-honed chops to the production.
It's hard to say at whom "Spartacus" is aimed. Fans of the more staid "I, Claudius" and "Rome" may be put off by the cartoonish, ultimate-fighting brutality and lack of sophistication. Fans of "300" might be put off by the undercurrent of homoeroticism that has always been in gladiator movies being made explicit.
But there's no denying "Spartacus'" eye-catching watchability. Like the gladiator games it invokes, this sword-and-scandal comic book is never boring. But, perhaps like some who enjoyed those games but had second thoughts once the bloodlust was sated, viewers might feel just a little bit guilty afterward