Starz' new series, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" has the misfortune of borrowing too much from "300" and "Gladiator" in its pilot episode that may have caused quite a few viewers to immediately change the channel or give up after that premiere episode. I was definitely in this boat watching the first of 13 episodes, "The Red Serpent" following an unnamed Thracian warrior (Andy Whitfield) who pledges he and his people's support to Rome in exchange for their military assistance against hordes of Barbarians. What follows is a greatest hits collection of those two films, but with a much lower budget and a very odd, over exaggerated take on violence. We meet the warrior's wife, Sura (Erin Cummings) and their parting before our hero goes to war is straight from "300," as is his outfit and the slow-mo to sped-up fight scenes. Then a betrayal from the Romans happens and our warrior becomes an outlaw, only to be torn from his wife and taken to a nearby town, Capua, to be executed in the arena. Then, just like "Gladiator" our hero uses his knowledge of war to best four gladiators, when the heart of the crowd, and catch the eye of a local lannista, Batiatus (John Hannah), who buys the warrior and dubs him Spartacus. I cringed at the thought of 12 more episodes, feeling the creators had already played their hand at knocking off the two films. Then something magical happened in the second episode, the series stated to become intriguing and its own beast.
Yes, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" looks quite a bit like "300" with its CG sets and camera tricks during fight scenes, but from a story standpoint, it's light-years beyond Frank Miller's shallow tale of macho bravado and I dare say, a series that has more heart than "Gladiator." It evolves into a fierce champion of television much in the same way its hero, Spartacus evolves into a lethal warrior of the coliseum. It's not a fast process, and the first few episodes while entertaining, are nothing compared to the series when it races towards the season finale. Once a member of Batiatus' ludus, he quickly encounters opposition from reigning champion, Crixus (Manu Bennett), the undefeated Gaul and Barca, the "Beast of Carthage" an equally brutal warrior who is later revealed to have a more private, tender side. One can't imagine how pleased I was to see our hero get his butt kicked by Crixus right off the bat; the series doesn't make the mistake of giving us a protagonist who is an instant success, Spartacus is definitely skilled, but as the doctore or trainer (Peter Mensah, a very welcome presence on the series) stresses, he is nothing compared to the men of the ludus (gladiator school) who have been training for fights to the death for much longer; this is their way of life, one Spartacus must learn to accept and respect if he is to survive and find his wife, taken by the legatus who betrayed him in the pilot. With the promise of support by Batiatus in seeing this task carried out, Spartacus begins his journey from warrior of a small village to eventual legend of the arena.
"Spartacus: Blood and Sand" is quite brilliant in its ability to slow build an intricate web of plots involving all characters, big and small at some point in this freshman season. While the advertised story is Spartacus', the real intrigue comes from Batiatus' quest to break into local politics. With his devious wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) by his side manipulating the wife of the same legatus responsible for Spartacus' wife's enslavement; the end goal, a foot in the door. To get a series about Roman life without heavy handed political plotlines is extremely refreshing; the characters of "Blood and Sand" are all ruthless in one way or the other and while Batiatus and Lucretia aspire to increase their station in life, they still largely know only a few ways to go about things and when things don't work out for Batiatus, violence often follows. John Hannah is an absolute delight in the role, chewing scenery right and left, committing heinous acts and still managing to win the hearts of viewers with his earnest respect for Spartacus. Too long a supporting player in films like "The Mummy," Hannah shows his underutilized talent to the fullest and is easily one of the most fascinating characters to watch. Likewise, Lucy Lawless is no slouch herself, playing a spoiled wife doing her husband's bidding by day and having an affair behind his back with Crixus the minute he steps outside the ludus to try and better their lives.
Manu Bennett quietly evolves from a general jackass to one of the series' most complex characters as Spartacus' main rival Crixus and is a major player in events regarding the arena. Back on the sand of the training yard, Spartacus finds an ally in Varro, the only man in the school who willingly signed himself into service. Varro represents a humanity Spartacus has lost, a man with a wife and child he fights to support and Varro, himself, grows as a character highlighting the show's writers treating no character as unimportant. Minor characters such as Naevia, Lucretia's personal slave comes to prominence as the love interest of Crixus creating yet another subplot, a romantic triangle that could have very deadly consequences. A lot of these little side stories are thrown out to the audience rather quickly and it can be overwhelming at first, making the first four episodes weaker compared to the latter episodes. The fifth episode, "The Shadow of Death" is a true game changer, cementing some characters in roles they will remain in until the end of the season and setting events into motion that will play out as expected in some cases, but in others throw the audience curveballs they could have never predicted. Episodes like "Party Favors" and "Whore" are prime examples, setting up the final act of each episode and building character depth prior to; then out of nowhere, something shocking happens that changes the dynamic of the show and many relationships between characters. While, I ultimately had an idea of where the show would end its season at (it is after all loosely based on the true story of Spartacus and the slave rebellion), I never expected what was to come in that final episode, "Kill Them All," despite the ominous title.
Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of "Spartacus" will likely arise, but to be honest, aside from using the historical story as a story guide, thankfully, the series doesn't try to ape Kubrick. It is far from original, as previously mentioned, it does borrow inspiration from "300" in the style department, and does fall back to cribbing from "Gladiator," on a much smaller scale. The biggest hurdle the series has that will likely keep many viewers away is the adult's only content. Some of the most colorful language this side of "Deadwood" is uttered, nudity is plentiful and the show is not shy with copious amounts of heavily stylized, CG, blood and gore. Heads are cleaved, faces are crushed, limbs are dismembered, people are crucified and castrated; think of a violent act and it likely occurs at some point in the series. Fortunately, it isn't nearly as exploitative as all that sounds and the arena scenes are quite cartoonish in their violent excess, both in the actual gore and the computer generated effects which can look hokey but do make the actors and their tremendous physical commitments to the scenes stand out. I can't fault anyone for finding elements of the show offensive, even I must admit, the creators crossed the line for pure shock value on more than a number of occasions and it's a shame the show will likely be known by reputation for it's mature content first instead of it's very sharp writing.
After 13 episodes that kept me on my toes up to the final frame, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" wraps up very nicely, paving a way for a second season that could take any number of roads. Sadly, Andy Whitfield, the tremendous actor behind the titular character has quit the show. Initially diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, the creators delayed production, instead filming a six-episode prequel focusing on life in the ludus before Spartacus' arrival. Whitfield, given a clean bill of health was all set to resume filming on the new season, when his cancer returned and he had to make the heartbreaking decision of quitting a show that made him a star and he played a large part in its success. Whitfield is a great new talent striking a great balance between action hero and dramatic actor; he isn't often given moments to show his skill at raw emotion, but when he does, the scenes remain series standouts. I honestly wish him the best of health and hope he's able to return to the big or small screen in any capacity in the future, whether it is back on this show or another project.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is easily one of the best I've ever seen on a DVD, if not the best TV DVD release I've ever witnessed. Detail is astounding in both close shots and mid-range shots with no signs of compression artifacts, noise reduction, or edge enhancement present. There is a very fine level of grain that transfers nicely, while color levels are spot on, capturing the earthen tones of the series as well as the deeper majestic colors of the "royalty" of the show. Contrast levels are spot on and given the many dark scenes, this is greatly appreciated. The only negative is the sharp transfer really makes some of the CG work stick out like a sore thumb, but that's more a creative problem than a technical one. This is a reference quality set.
The English 5.1 audio track is a solid in all categories, capturing dialogue crisply and without distortion, while utilizing surrounds to provide atmosphere, which is especially appreciated in the arena scenes where noise is all around the fighters. The lower end of the spectrum didn't have as much kick as one might expect but it's still strong overall. Spanish subtitles and English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
The extras on "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" are quite plentiful. The most substantial extras are six commentary tracks. On Disc One, actor Andy Whitfield and director Jesse Warn discuss "The Thing in the Pit." On Disc Two, director Michael Hurst and actors Lucy Lawless and Andy Whitfield discuss "Shadow Games". On Disc Three, actors Andy Whitfield, Lucy Lawless and Viva Bianca discuss "Whore" and "Party Favors" while writer Brent Fletcher, creator Steven S. DeKnight, and actor Nick E. Taraby discuss "Revelations." On Disc Four creator Steven S. DeKnight and actors Peter Menash and Katrina Law discuss "Kill Them All."
On the fourth disc, the remainder of the non-commentary extras reside. First up is a 15-minute featurette titled "Spartacus: Blood and Sand- Behind the Scenes." It's a standard promotional featurette that likely aired on Starz in the weeks leading up to the premiere of the show. "Spartacus: Battle Royale" is a seven-minute segment set to the original score of the showing some of the most exciting action moments of the series. It's basically an extended music video. "Gladiator Boot Camp" is a brief look at the training the actors underwent preparing for the action scenes. "Grime and Punishment" is a look at the filming of "the hole" scene. "Andy Gets Plastered" shows Andy Whitfield getting cast made of his body for the creation of armor. "Legend Re-Imagined" gives a brief rundown of the changes the series made to the original "Spartacus" story. "Oh, Those Randy Romans" is a talking heads interview collection discussing the more risqué events of the series. "Shooting Green: The Shadow of Death" is one of the most interesting segments, showing the raw footage of the fight (and various other )scenes and how the crowds and surroundings were built around it in the computer. "Exposing Your Ludus" is a brief collection of candid moments between takes. Last but not least, a trailer for the series titled "Vengeance" is included.
"Spartacus: Blood and Sand" is a take no prisoners look at Roman life that doesn't get cluttered with politics; it focuses on the gladiators who became legends and the people involved in these fights, who were complex characters in their own right and often just a ruthless as the fighters themselves, if not more so. While it takes a bit of time to show its brilliance as a series and isn't for the easily offened, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" is definitely worth checking out. Anchor Bay brings this new series to DVD with an amazing technical presentation that is as enjoyable to watch as the sharp acting and intriguing storylines. Highly Recommended.