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Sunday, September 14, 2014

SPARTACUS: THE COMPLETE SERIES -- Blu-ray review by porfle

"This show is what you get when you cross a riveting, exquisitely-produced story with a meat grinder." That's how I described the first season DVD set ("Blood and Sand") of the shockingly graphic, richly dramatic, and blazingly entertaining Starz series "Spartacus", with subsequent sets ("Gods of the Arena", "Vengeance", and "War of the Damned") matching if not surpassing it with each hypnotically watchable episode.

If you're new to the series, or have missed parts of it along the way, fear not. Anchor Bay and Starz have collected the entire sweeping saga in the 13-disc box set SPARTACUS: THE COMPLETE SERIES (available in either DVD or Blu-ray+Digital HD with Ultraviolet™) containing all 39 episodes and original bonus features plus an extra all-new bonus disc. And if you're like me, this just might become your brand new stranded-on-a-desert-island pick of the week, month--maybe even year.

Those with even a passing knowledge of the historical account and/or the Stanley Kubrick film will be familiar with the story of Spartacus, a free man cast into slavery by the Romans circa 73 B.C. and forced to fight in the gladiatorial arena until at last he led a slave revolt whose growing legions, for a short while anyway, threatened to conquer Rome itself.

While hailed by the arena's bloodthirsty spectators as its greatest and most heroic gladiator of all, Spartacus' growing horror at the mistreatment and oppression of his fellow slaves, coupled with an overwhelming lust to avenge his beloved wife's death at Roman hands, finally drives him and his followers into all-out war at the mind-boggling climax of "Blood and Sand."

But first we get to see our hero's constant struggle to survive one harrowing fight for life after another against a never-ending procession of the deadliest foes ever to wield swords and shields. And the clashes continue even in the gladiators' off-time as well, as Spartacus must coexist not only with brave allies like Varro (Jai Courtney) and harsh but noble trainer Doctore (Peter Mensah, 300), but with such bitter rivals as super-warrior Crixus (Manu Bennett)--whose aid he'll desperately court when the time comes to revolt--and various others who wish his downfall either through fair competition or more devious means.

When it comes to deviousness, however, none can match that of the spoiled, entitled Roman elite who enjoy lives of leisure and idle intrigue while using their slaves as either beasts of burden or objects of sexual and sadistic gratification. Of these, most entertaining are John Hannah (THE MUMMY) as gladiator master Batiatus and his scheming wife Lucretia, played to perfection by "Xena: Warrior Princess" herself, Lucy Lawless.

Joining them in the delightfully dark and sinister goings-on of the Roman upper class is Viva Bianca (SCORNED) as vain, condescending Ilithyia, wife of super soldier Gaius Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), who will one day be charged with defeating Spartacus in battle. Ilithyia proves a vile young seductress who feigns friendship while forever plotting against Lucretia and Batiatus to improve her social status.

At times, the lengths to which these characters will go (perhaps "stoop" would be a better word) to outwit each other are dazzlingly perverse, as are many of their diversions. "Spartacus" is rife with more steamy softcore sex than a whole month's worth of "Cinemax After Dark", and whether you fancy the male or female form in all its unfettered glory, you're sure to get more than an eyeful with each episode. Careful, though--several of these sexual couplings have not-so-happy endings.

What impresses most about this series, however, are the battle scenes--perhaps the goriest and most graphically violent ever filmed, and without a doubt some of the most exciting. No horror film ever boasted this level of carnage--heads roll, limbs are severed, blood fills the air--all done with a combination of practical and computer effects that match the semi-unreal green-screen ambience of the series as a whole (which I find appealing in its own way).

Both arena and battlefield fights are a blend of styles from such films as 300, THE MATRIX, and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, using lots of bullet-time shots and super-slo-mo tableaux that resemble splash pages from exquisitely-drawn comic books. All of which is of feature-film quality and keeps us entertained on a purely visceral level while also moving the plot relentlessly forward.

With star Andy Whitfield sidelined by illness (which, to every fan's great sorrow, the likable and talented actor would not survive), the producers chose the prequel path as a follow-up to season one. "Gods of the Arena" concentrates on the gladiator business with John Hannah and Lucy Lawless coming to the fore to enact some of their characters' most outlandish dealings in both the gladiatorial and social arenas.

Again, arena action dominates all else as we get to see not only the origin of Crixus, but the introduction of a new gladiator hero known as Gannicus (Dustin Clare), a devil-may-care fighter with the insouciant air of a rock star. At first superficial, Gannicus will eventually reveal a depth that makes him and his story both fascinating and moving. Getting to know Crixus better also enriches his backstory, enhancing his later relationships with Spartacus and others. The "Star Wars" saga's own "Jango Fett", Temuera Morrison, appears as Batiatus' head gladiator-trainer.

In elevating his status in Roman society, John Hannah's Batiatus proves so cunning, willful, and prone to sudden bursts of extreme violence that his plotlines often have the feel of a Mario Puzo underworld thriller from an earlier time. Lucy Lawless' Lucretia, of course, is involved in equally calculating pursuits of her own. Both will be taken aback when Batiatus' domineering father returns from exile to take over the family gladiator business from his errant son. As in season one, the storylines all come together to end in jarring fashion that will leave viewers breathless.

The third series, "Vengeance" (officially referred to as "season two", with "Gods of the Arena" being considered a separate miniseries), introduces Liam McIntyre in place of the late Andy Whitfield as Spartacus. The change is jarring at first, to be sure, but give him time--eventually McIntyre will make the role his own. We finally get to rejoin the slave revolt already in progress, with Spartacus' army increasing in number with each Roman household they lay waste to and each group of slaves that they liberate.

Cynthia Addai-Robinson replaces Lesley-Ann Brandt as Naevia, former "body slave" to Lucretia who is now the love of Crixus' life. In time, Naevia will become a fierce warrior herself and fight alongside Crixus and the others as Addai-Robinson, like McIntyre, grows into the character.

Ilithyia returns in a surprising new storyline, as does her husband Gaius Claudius Glaber, who leads the Roman forces against Spartacus and finds the slave army and its leader--who is fast becoming a living legend to both slave and Roman alike--more formidable than he dared imagine.

It all leads up to the final season, "War of the Damned", in which the series reaches a level of visual spectacle and dramatic intensity that serves as a fitting climax to the saga. Battlefield action rivals that of RETURN OF THE KING, with each blood-drenched clash topping the last in a fury of blunt and bladed weapons thudding and slicing their way through oceans of writhing combatants.

The title character now fully belongs to Liam McIntyre, who plays the role with a conviction and depth much improved over the previous season. Manu Bennett's Crixus and Dustin Clare's Gannicus are also far more rounded characters who add to the series' dramatic tension as well as continuing to provide some of its most thrilling battle action.

One ambitious plotline involves the conquering of an entire city as a home for Spartacus' forces, which will prove as hard to hold as it is to manage when a brash young Gaius Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance, who recalls Brad Pitt in TROY) infiltrates their ranks and leads a devastating attack from within.

But Spartacus has an even greater new foe, perhaps his most fearsome of all, in the brilliant military leader Crassus (an outstanding Simon Merrells, THE WOLFMAN), a vastly wealthy man who, after being implored by a beleaguered Roman senate, purchases an army of 10,000 men with his own money and leads them into battle against the rebels.

While ruthless and unyielding, Crassus proves a more interesting antagonist than the usual "boo-hiss" villain in that he respects Spartacus as both man and warrior, and displays emotional depth in his dealings with an ambitious but incompetent son, Tiberius (Christian Antidormi), and a beautiful slave woman, Kore (Jenna Lind), whom he loves over his own wife.

The usual liberal doses of softcore porn are depicted with the same matter-of-fact frankness as the battle scenes. The latter are, as always, rendered with the utmost imagination and visual creativity. Often an impeccably choreographed moment is staged and frozen in time as to resemble a Barry Smith painting or Jim Steranko gatefold brought to life.

As usual, there's more blood and gore here than in just about any horror film you can imagine. Nothing is held back in the depiction of extreme, graphic violence that shows in hyper-realistic detail just what carnage would reign during one of these vicious hand-to-hand battles with thousands of men and women ferociously flailing and hacking away at each other in close quarters.

With the slave revolt an ever-growing threat to Rome's way of life, Spartacus and Crassus continue to match strategy and armed might in a battle of wits that has heartrending repercussions for both sides. In this, the final season, beloved characters fall and the unthinkable happens time and again.

Because the characters are, by this time, so familiar and well-drawn, the dramatic passages carry an impact just as riveting if not more so than the action scenes, especially since history already tells us that this story, at least in some key aspects, won't have a happy ending. But as far as that goes, the writers still have a number of ways to keep things from being too downbeat and predictable as we near the inevitable conclusion.

The Blu-ray and DVD box sets from Anchor Bay/Starz are in 1.78:1 widescreen with English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish mono sound. Subtitles are in English and Spanish. Runtime is 2173 minutes for Blu-ray and 2136 minutes for DVD. (A complete list of bonus features follows this review.)

All in all, SPARTACUS: THE COMPLETE SERIES is one of the most solidly and consistently compelling series I've ever seen. With endlessly impressive battle scenes filled to the brim with action and excitement, and dramatic storylines that are shocking, suspenseful, and scintillating, it belongs on any hardy cinephile's bucket list of must-see entertainment.

Buy it at

Limited Edition Blu-ray

1st season ("Blood and Sand") bonus features:
DVD and Blu-ray™ bonus features:

•Gladiator Camp
•History Rewritten
•Make-up Effects
•The Hole

And more!
•Audio Commentaries
•Episodes with Enhanced Digital Effects
•Behind-The-Scenes Footage

Exclusive Blu-ray™ bonus feature:

•Four "Directors’ Cut Extended Episodes" personally selected by Executive Producer Rob Tapert

Prequel season ("Gods of the Arena") bonus features:

Blu-ray and DVD bonus features include:

•Starz Studios: Gods of the Arena
•Weapons Of Mass Disruption
•Battle Royale: Anatomy Of A Scene
•On Set With Lucy Lawless
•10 Easy Steps To Dismemberment
•Post Production: The Final Execution
•Enter The Arena: Production Design
•Dressed To Kill
•Convention Panel
•Arena Bloopers

Exclusive Blu-ray bonus features include:

•3D "Ring Of Fire" Battle Sequence
•Extended Episodes
•Audio Commentaries On All Episodes (including: Writer/Creator/Executive Producer Steven S. DeKnight, Executive Producer Rob Tapert and actors John Hannah, Lucy Lawless, Dustin Clare, Jaime Murray, Peter Mensah – and more

2nd season ("Vengeance") bonus features:

•Starz Studios: Spartacus: Vengeance
•The Making of Spartacus: Vengeance
•Behind the Camera: Directing the Rebellion
•On Set with Liam McIntyre
•The Legend of Spartacus
•Famous Last Words

•BLU-RAY EXCLUSIVE – 9 Extended Episodes and Audio Commentaries!

3rd season ("War of the Damned") bonus features:

•SPARTACUS: The Legend Retold
•The Price Of Being A Gladiator
•A Bloody Farewell
•The Spoils Of War Revealed: Visual Effects
•Adorning The Damned
•The Mind Behind SPARTACUS

•BLU-RAY™ EXCLUSIVES – Extended Episodes and Audio Commentaries!


New Bonus-Disc Features:

•SPARTACUS Fan Favorites With Liam McIntyre
•Scoring A Hit: Composer Joseph LoDuca
•An Eye Full: Roger Murray
•SPARTACUS: Paul Grinder
•The Last Word: John Hannah





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