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Tuesday, March 10, 2015


We tend to think of Leonardo da Vinci as that wizened old guy with the long grey beard and flowing locks, huddled inside his Renaissance workshop creating monumental works of art, science, and invention. But before he got that way, according to the fanciful Starz series "Da Vinci's Demons", young Leo first blazed his way through history as a sword-slinging, seafaring adventurer whose highly advanced intellect constantly got him both in and out of danger.

David S. Goyer's DA VINCI'S DEMONS: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Anchor Bay) drops us right in the middle of several riveting subplots left simmering from the previous season, with first-time viewers such as myself forced to hang on and piece it all together on the fly. But it only takes an episode or two to assimilate enough of what's going on to start really getting caught up in it all.

The young Italian genius Leonardo (Tom Riley, I WANT CANDY), already a noted artist, inventor, and all-around seeker of knowledge, is caught up in a raging street war between the Medici and Pazzi families for control of the city of Florence. Leo helps a greviously injured Lorenzo de' Medici (Elliot Cowan) escape through underground tunnels with his nemesis, Riario (Blake Ritson), hot on his heels. (In our first look at da Vinci's brilliance, he'll save Lorenzo's life before the episode's end by inventing the blood transfusion!)

Riario, we find, is not only head of the Vatican guard but also the bastard son of the man who has usurped the identity of his identical twin brother, Pope Sixtus IV. This subplot, which is not unlike something out of Dumas, grows increasingly intense as the false Pope wields the power of the Catholic church against his enemies--including excommunicating the entire city of Florence--while his brother, imprisoned in a dungeon, plots his escape with the help of his daughter Lucrezia (Laura Haddock, "Upstairs, Downstairs", GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY), who is Riario's cousin.

Several intertwined plotlines bubble with intrigue surrounding these and a multitude of other characters such as Lorenzo's strong-willed wife Clarice (Lara Pulver, "Robin Hood"), who will do anything to protect her family's interests including hanging her own brother, a cardinal, for treason. Familiar actor David Schofield (GLADIATOR, FROM HELL, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON) is Leo's eternally disapproving father Piero da Vinci. Alexander Siddig, formerly Dr. Bashir of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine", plays the enigmatic Al-Rahim, a mystical figure who appears unexpectedly from time to time to guide Leo on his journey.

But it's Leonardo's obsessive quest to find both his mother and a tome of ancient knowledge known as "The Book of Leaves" (also sought by the Vatican) which drives the series more than anything else. For this he will set sail with his loyal apprentices Zoroaster (Greg Chillin) and Nico (Eros Vlahos) towards the fabled "New World" despite warnings against venturing over the edge of the Earth. Joining them is none other than Amerigo Vespucci (Lee Boardman), portrayed here as a rapscallion who gets some of the show's funniest lines.

Here, "Da Vinci's Demons" excites us with swashbuckling swordfights and pirate-movie adventure while at the same time allowing us to watch da Vinci use his exceptional mind to devise solutions to each predicament (including the world's first two-man submarine). Often we see this presented in graphic terms (reminiscent of the crime scene deductions of Benedict Cumberbatch's "Sherlock") and can follow his thought processes from frustration to cathartic enlightenment, as in the wonderful sequence in which he realizes that the sun, not the Earth, is the center of the solar system.

The lushly exotic New World scenes where Leo and company are captured by the Incas feature a lengthy sequence which plays much like INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, with our heroes on a perilous quest for their own version of the Holy Grail. Upon their return to Florence, the season reaches its peak with some of the most exciting and surprising plot twists of all, ending right at the brink of war with the Ottoman Empire just as a more sinister group, the shadowy Enemies of Man, begin setting their own plans into motion. It's one of those teasing cliffhangers that really leave you frustrated.

The series is replete with lavish, meticulous period detail and fantastic sets, as well as beautiful use of CGI. Direction, editing, and cinematography are dynamic, and the pace rarely lets up. The series doesn't shy away from nudity and softcore sex and the violence is often quite graphic, somtimes making early gore films such as BLOOD FEAST look tame by comparison.

The 3-disc, 10-episode Blu-ray set (also available in DVD) from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 English stereo and Spanish mono. Subtitles are in English and Spanish. Extras consist of four featurettes--"The Journey Begins: Season 1 Recap", "A Closer Look" (detailed behind-the-scenes stuff), "Creating the New World" (SPFX, costumes, etc.), and "New Sets", which shows how much larger the show's scale has grown from one season to the next.

Da Vinci's on-the-spot brilliance is like his super-power in this delightful, challenging fantasy version of his life. DA VINCI'S DEMONS: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON has all the geeky appeal of a great graphic novel come to life, mixing beautiful visuals and scintillating concepts with riveting political intrigue.

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