SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND (TV SERIES) – Blu-ray review

“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”

“Spartacus: Blood and Sand” has almost nothing in common with Stanley Kubrick’s classic film that starred Kirk Douglas in the title role. The hit series, which debuted in January on Starz, has far more in common with Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, “300.” “Spartacus” utilizes the same green screen techniques to create an ultra-stylized version of Ancient Rome. It also features plenty of slow motion sequences and a copious amount of CG blood. Throats are slashed open, skulls are bashed in, and limbs are sliced off.

Of course, you have to have a little sex to go with all that violence. Prudes need not apply because there is a ton of nudity, including the full-frontal type from both guys and gals. But, what else would you expect from a show about sweaty and muscular brutes clad in leather Speedos? Yes, sex is a huge part of “Spartacus” as the series creators push the boundaries of what is allowable on cable television. The sex occurs in all manner of positions and permutations. Masters and slaves, slaves and slaves, gladiators and slaves, gladiators and gladiators, and, every now and then, a good ol’ orgy to spice things up.

The minds behind the show include series creator Steven S. DeKnight, a former producer and writer on shows like “Angel” and “Smallville,” as well as executive producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert. The influence of the latter duo can be seen in the outlandish tone of “Spartacus.” You can also thank them for the lovely presence of Lucy Lawless. Not to mention Michael Hurst, who played the sidekick Iolaus on “Hercules: The Legendary Adventures” (also produced by Raimi & Tapert), directed several episodes of the show.

Aussie actor Andy Whitfield stars as the titular character destined for greatness. In the pilot episode, “Red Serpent,” he is simply an unnamed to strikes an uneasy allegiance with Gaius Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), a legatus (general) in the Roman Legion. Glaber allies with the Thracians to wipe out the barbarian hordes ransacking their villages in exchange for assisting in the Roman Army’s campaign. However, Spartacus refuses to follow orders when Glaber his battle plan leaves the villages vulnerable to attack. Spartacus is taken prisoner and labeled a deserter. His wife, Sura (Erin Cummings), is separated from him and sold into slavery.

Spartacus is taken to the city of Capua where he is to be executed in battle against four vicious gladiators. To Glaber’s dismay, Spartacus rises against the odds and kills his opponents. Seeing how quickly he has become a crowd favorite, wealthy landowner Batiatus (John Hannah) purchases him for his ludus (gladiatorial school). Batiatus seeks to advance his status in the Empire while paying off his increasing debts and sees Spartacus as a means to an end. Under the stern whip of the drill instructor, Doctore (Peter Mensah), Spartacus reluctantly begins his training. Only when Batiatus agrees to find Sura does Spartacus commit wholeheartedly.

During his time at the ludus, Spartacus earns the grudging respect of Doctore as well as the friendship of another new recruit, Varro (Jai Courtney), a family man who sold himself to Batiatus to pay off his debts. He also earns the enmity of Crixus (Manu Bennett), the most skilled fighter at the school and the current champion of Capua. Crixus is also carrying on an affair with Batiatus’s wife, Lucretia (Lawless), but begins falling for her slave girl, Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt). Another important character on the show is Ilithyia (Viva Bianca), the spoiled daughter of a senator and wife of Glaber. It was her greed and manipulation that led to the Thracian mutiny against her husband.

Anchor Bay releases the first season of “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” on DVD and Blu-Ray. The Blu-Ray set contains all 13 episodes of season 1 spread across 4 discs. The episodes include:

-Disc 1-
“The Red Serpent” – Spartacus begins his journey into legend as he is betrayed by the Romans and sold into slavery.

“Sacramentum Gladiatorum” – Spartacus comes close to completing his gladiatorial training and prepares for his final test, a showdown with Crixus.

“Legends” – As the province prepares for a grand festival, Spartacus maneuvers himself into the main event against his archrival, Crixus.

“The Thing in the Pit” – After an embarrassing showing against Crixus, Batiatus hopes to make some quick coin by forcing Spartacus to fight in the underground fight circuit of the Pit.

-Disc 2-
“Shadow Games” – Spartacus and Crixus are forced to put aside their differences when they are teamed together in a battle to the death against a monstrous gladiator.

“Delicate Things” – Spartacus’s hopes are high when Batiatus receives news about Sura. Meanwhile, another veteran gladiator, Barca, is close to purchasing freedom for himself and his lover, Pietros.

“Great and Unfortunate Things” – Spartacus and Doctore become suspicious of their master following recent tragedies.

“Mark of the Brotherhood” – Crixus desperately attempts to recover from injury in order to prevent from being sold off by Batiatus. Ilithyia bribes a new recruit of the ludus to kill Spartacus.

-Disc 3-
“Whore” – Batiatus pimps out Spartacus to a rich noble woman who wishes to sleep with a gladiator.

“Party Favors” – Batiatus holds a birthday party for the teenage son of the local magistrate, but Ilithyia seduces him as part of her plan to gain revenge against Spartacus.

“Old Wounds” – Spartacus deals with the death of a friend while Batiatus initiates a scheme to cement his status.

“Revelation” – Both Spartacus and Batiatus plot in secret when Glaber visits Capua.

-Disc 4-
“Kill Them All” – The season finale as betrayals come to light and everyone’s machinations culminate to a boiling point.

VIDEO:
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Hot damn, Anchor Bay has really outdone itself with the BD release. The high definition transfer is flawless and extremely detailed. You can literally see every clod of dirt and bead of sweat bouncing off the bodies of the gladiators. Black levels are strong and blood is a deep and rich red.

AUDIO:
The audio is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. The sound is just as exceptional. You can hear the roar of the crowd inside the coliseum and the clank every time someone crosses swords. The show also features a hard rock/industrial score similar to Tyler Bates’ music in “300.” It’s a booming score with plenty of rattle and bass.

EXTRAS:
Disc 1 includes the following commentary tracks: “The Red Serpent” with Director Rick Jacobson, Creator Steven S. DeKnight, Producers Rob Tapert & Joshua Donen, “Sacramentum” with Director Rick Jacobson, Creator Steven S. DeKnight & Producer Rob Tapert, and “The Thing in the Pit” with Director Jesse Warn & Andy Whitfield.

Disc 2 includes the following commentary tracks: “Shadow Games” with Director Michael Hurst, Andy Whitfield & Lucy Lawless and “Delicate Things” with Creator Steven S. DeKnight & Erin Cummings.

Disc 3 includes the following commentary tracks: “Whore” and “Party Favors” with Andy Whitfield, Lucy Lawless & Viva Bianca and “Revelations” with Writer Brent Fletcher, Creator Steven S. DeKnight & Nick E. Taraby.

Disc 4 includes a commentary track for “Kill Them All” with Creator Steven S. DeKnight, Peter Mensah & Katrina Law. The fourth disc also contains an array of featurettes presented in HD.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand – Behind the Scenes(14:50) is the standard EPK-style making of featurette.

Spartacus: Battle Royale (7:26) is a musical montage of the show’s fight scenes.

Gladiator Boot Camp (4:21) is a quick look at the rigorous training the actors went through to become gladiators.

Crime and Punishment: The Hole (4:54) is a funny look at how they shot the rather gross sequence in the poop hole from “Legends”.

Andy Gets Plastered (2:44) shows us how the make-up artists created molds of Andy Whitfield’s head and body parts for costuming purposes.

Legend Re-Imagined (4:00) is an interview with the show’s creators of how they interpreted historical accounts of the real Spartacus.

Oh, Those Randy Romans (6:14) is a featurette focusing on the sex appeal and relationships of the show.

Shooting Green: The Shadow of Death (4:48) is a look at how the green screen and slow motion effects were achieved.

Exposing Your Ludus is a montage of outtakes and silly on-set antics.

Spartacus “Vengeance” Trailer is a trailer for the series.

You also have the option of watching each episode with the Spartacus Historicus, an optional pop-up trivia track, and MovieIQ connectivity through BD-Live.

FILM VALUE:
“Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is the perfect TV show for anyone who thought “300” was just too cerebral. The series is befitting of the excesses of the Roman Empire. It is excessively gaudy, excessively violent, and excessively profane. These qualities are the show’s strongest and weakest points. Some of the action scenes and dialogue becomes repetitive quickly. The word “cock” loses its power when you hear half a dozen characters utter it within five minutes. “Spartacus” doesn’t match up to the fuller storytelling of HBO’s “Rome,” but it is a viscerally fun show. There’s plenty of T&A and beefcake to attract male and female viewers.

The second season of “Spartacus” is currently on hold due to the unfortunate health concerns of its star. Andy Whitfield announced he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma back in March and production was delayed. It was back on in June when Whitfield’s lymphoma went into remission, but it appears to have come back recently. Hopefully, he can fight back again, Spartacus-style.

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