Sunday, June 15, 2014

End of Watch(ing): Spartacus - Blood and Sand

It must have started at Calgary Expo when we saw Manu Bennett on stage during The Middle Earth: EXPOsed event.  I had absolutely no idea who he was but he came out riding a piece of stage equipment and then showed off some sword play choreography with one of the other panelists.   He seemed like a cool dude and had a noticeable air of rugged yet funny charisma  but I couldn't place him in The Hobbit.  Upon further research, we learned that he performance capture played Azog the Defiler, leader of Orcs and ruler of the abandoned Dwarfish mines.  Then I started watching Arrow, where he played Special-Ops soldier Slade Wilson and he did a good job there teaching Oliver Queen how to fight while at the same time insulting him.  One article I read about him showed a very humanitarian side where he engaged a physically disabled fan behind the scenes at Comic-Con while another had him blaming Jean-Claude Van Damme for the collapse of his career in the late 2000's.  It seemed like his professional output took off with 2010's Spartacus series on Starz, which I recall creating quite a stir with it's over the top portrayals of sex and violence.  A friend was a big fan of the show and let me know how the seasons rolled out as IMDb just has all 4 just lumped together.

Now, this ain't your father's Spartacus i.e. The Man Kirk Douglas' 1960 epic film.  No this is Spartacus for the post-300, graphic novel, rated R age.  The 13 episode season starts off with Thracian fighters duped into assisting the Romans in fighting off a threat but the civilized Romans treat the tribal Thracian's like crap.  When one rebels, he's thrown into the arena to die by combat but ends up winning and embarrassing the brass.  Separated from his wife, this lone warrior joins the House of Quintus Batiatus, who along with his wife Lucretia, look to conspire and back stab their way into high society.  Dubbing the rebel Thracian Spartacus after an old king, our protagonist must now deal with life inside gladiator academy and learn to fight for the crowd if he intends to survive and be reunited with his lost wife.  Batiatus' champion is a fighter named Crixus, an undefeated Gaul and secret lover to Lucretia.  At first unwilling to participate, Spartacus slowly comes to realize that he is property and if he ever wants to see his wife again, he'll need Batiatus' help.

Through the season we watch Spartacus become a champion and legend in the arena while Crixus is injured and must fight to reclaim his former glory.  There's melodrama galore as Lucretia befriends Llithyia, the wife of the high ranking military commander Spartacus defied and educates her in the primal and taboo ways of a slave/gladiator facility while Llithyia teaches Lucretia how the other half lives.  Batiatus has his own plans for Spartacus and manipulates the new champion with promises of finding his wife.  By the end of the season, there's been so much betrayal and so many lies, there's only one thing for Spartacus to do: rebel!  In the first episode, the use of green screen, digital backgrounds, fake blood and way too much slow motion had me worrying I'd just purchased a dud of a season of TV.  I'm not the biggest fan of 300 so if Spartacus was just going to coast by trying to be a weekly version of the film, I would be out.  Luckily each episode got better as the relationships between gladiators, slaves and owners grew and the action helped highlight the stories, giving them weight and a sense of urgency.

The cast all do a splendid job starting with Andy Whitfield as the quiet yet strong Spartacus, The Mummy's John Hannah as the increasingly evil Batiatus, Xena's Lucy Lawless as his conspiring yet sympathetic wife Lucretia, guy in everything Jai Courtney as gladiator and Spartacus bro Varro and of course, Manu Bennett as asshole turned chick magnet turned ally Crixus.  The drama and subplots are all crafted quite well with plenty of shocks and surprises throughout the season and unlike Game of Thrones, doesn't string you along, it's all in your face and you feel it.  Action scenes are sword and shield heavy with lots of fake CGI blood and horrific yet funny stabbings, bone breaking and swords going through heads.  Spartacus has an odd sense of humor from the explicit sex and nudity (male and female) to the extreme, laugh out loud (knife to the eye!) or cringe inducing (Spartacus fights in bloody, underground matches) violence to random moments like Spartacus day dreaming about killing everyone or the heavy use of cursing and insults between the testosterone filled gladiators ("Jupiter's cock!"). 

Spearheaded by the likes of Steven S. DeKnight (Buffy, Smallville and the NetFlix's upcoming Daredevil), Robert Tapert (Xena, Hercules), Joshua Donen (Legend of the Seeker) and Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Spider-Man), Spartacus again uses New Zealand's tax breaks to produce an action oriented show that is like the raw and edgier evolution of kid and family friendly Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess from the 90's.  Only instead of utilizing the lush landscapes of the island like those shows, Spartacus is all shot on sets with green screen.  It doesn't hurt or hinder the style of the show but it would have been nice to see something that wasn't on a stage like some real grass or trees.  As 300 featured a cast mostly in their underpants and started a new fitness trend, the gladiators of Spartacus are all in tip top shape thanks in part to a 6 week Gladiator camp that put the actors through physical training to get lean and mean as well as fight choreography.  Leading man Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin Lymphoma so a 6 episode prequel, Gods of the Arena, was produced while Whitfield sought treatment but he was later replaced by Liam McIntyre for seasons 2 and 3, Vengeance and War of the Damned when he died in 2011.  During his fight against the disease, documentary Be Here Now was produced to capture his struggle and ultimate defeat.  

No comments:

Post a Comment