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Friday, August 26, 2011

SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA -- DVD review by porfle

With the bloody slave revolt and slaughter of their Roman masters which ended SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND with such a resounding bang, it was hard to imagine that a prequel about earlier events not even involving the title hero would amount to much.  SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA (2011), however, proves a worthy follow-up that almost matches its predecessor.

Not only do we already know that Batiatus (John Hannah), who runs a gladiator-training school (or "ludus"), and his equally scheming and ambitious wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), are dead, but we're shown how it happened in a brief recap of the earlier season finale.  Next thing we know, it's years earlier, and Batiatus has just begun his quest to become top dog in his chosen field amidst a host of more powerful and influential men (including Jeffrey Thomas as his own domineering father, Titus, who will make a highly unwelcome return from exile to take over).

Hannah and Lawless delight in playing this scheming couple united in their lust for power and social status, and we find ourselves rooting for them since they're often the lesser of many evils.  These include Tullius (Stephen Lovatt) and his young toady Vettius (a wonderfully supercilious Gareth Williams), vile competitors who pull the city's strings and run their business like an ancient version of the Mafia.  In fact, much of the brutal retribution, terror tactics, and ruthless strategies that result from Batiatus' rivalry with them are reminiscent of THE GODFATHER and GOODFELLAS, and often result in the unexpected and violent deaths of major characters.

As in "Upstairs, Downstairs", the activities of the privileged class are contrasted with the trials of their indentured inferiors--in this case, the gladiators and other household slaves.  Chief among these is Gannicus (Dustin Clare), greatest of all gladiators despite his cavalier attitude.  Much of the series involves a tug-o-war over him by Batiatus and Tullius, each of whom want him as their prized gladiator in the grand new arena that's under construction.  A somewhat superficial character at first, Gannicus soon reveals a depth that makes his story the most compelling one of all and leads to the season's emotional climax.

Back from last season is Peter Mensah as Oenomaus, not yet the ludus' Doctore (head trainer) as the position is filled by an almost unrecognizable Temuera "Jango Fett" Morrison.  His beautiful wife Melitta (Marisa Ramirez) is Lucretia's personal slave and struggles against a doomed mutual attraction to Gannicus.  Barca (Antonio Te Maioha) returns along with the cowardly Ashur (Nick Tarabay), who demonstrates why he was so reviled in the previous series.  Of particular interest is the origin of Crixus (Manu Bennett), who will one day be champion but is now seen as a lowly recruit fighting to stay alive and gain stature in the eyes of his peers.

With all of this going on, there's never a dull moment in SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA.  Batiatus and Lucretia's devious machinations are an endless source of amusement, with Lucretia's recently-widowed friend Gaia (Jaime Murray) aiding their cause in hopes of landing a man with a fat purse while renewing lustful intentions toward Lucretia herself.  This leads to some of the show's many softcore sex scenes, which erupt with such eye-popping regularity that it's like a month's worth of "Cinemax After Dark" crammed into each episode. 

While the gladiators enjoy their post-arena "rewards", jaded, repellent Romans indulge in perverse sexual scenarios with hapless slaves.  Lucy Lawless fans are apt to freak out during Lucretia's frenzied lesbian couplings with Gaia, with an enthusiastic Batiata squeezing in for the occasional threesome.

Aside from the carnal aspects of the series, however, the main attraction is what goes on in the arena.  Amidst frenzied crowd reactions (people either cheer like they're at a rock concert, flash their boobs at the gladiators, fight amongst themselves, get splattered with blood, or screw), each bone-crushing battle between these bloodthirsty behemoths is a heady concoction of wildly stylized visuals, eye-pleasing SPFX, and imaginative staging.  Slow-motion is used very well to accentuate and prolong particular moments that would normally pass too quickly to be fully savored. 

A street brawl between one of Vettius' men and a blindfolded Gannicus (the result of a poorly-worded challenge taken literally) is an early highlight.  The older, smaller fight venue provides a more intimate setting for most of the clashes seen here, with spectators being liberally doused with errant gore or even finding themselves minus a few fingers.  The inaugural games of the massive new arena end the final episode with a spectacular free-for-all pitting all of Batiatus' men against those of his two-faced friend Solonius (Craig Walsh Wrightson) in a battle royale. 

Here, as in every other episode, the gore factor is sky-high--H.G. Lewis himself never imagined the graphic carnage on display thanks to skillful use of both practical effects and CGI.  The screen is splattered with geysers of blood, severed limbs, and jaw-dropping (in one case, literally) acts of bodily harm.  Gorehounds will be in hemoglobin heaven. 

The look of the show is a non-stop wallow in lush visuals with so much detail that I often had to rewind to catch dialogue I'd missed while taking it all in.  Speaking of dialogue, these characters are such serious potty mouths--every other sentence contains the word "cock" and/or crude references to various bodily functions--that listening to them talk is consistently amusing.  In one scene, a drunken Gannicus favors us with the song "My Cock Rages On", while elsewhere the prospect of having sex with him prompts Gaia to remark, "One moistens at the very thought."  All our other favorite four-letter words are generously and creatively featured as well.

The 2-disc, six-episode set from Anchor Bay and Starz is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  Extras consist of ten featurettes focusing on behind-the-scenes, weapons, costumes, SPFX, post-production, production design, and other aspects of the show.  Also included is a ComicCon panel session, "On Set With Lucy Lawless", and bloopers.

A must for anyone who enjoyed the earlier saga, SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA is like crack for fans of sex, violence, and gore done with impeccable production values and no-holds-barred storytelling.  Now if only Andy Whitfield can return from his unfortunate illness so we can resume the story of Spartacus himself. 

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