'Spartacus’ Aims High But Lacks Character

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The remake virus — the scourge that has inflicted such recent rehashes as Scooby-Doo and Starsky and Hutch on the viewing public — has now infected USA Network.

At least the cable net aimed higher than did the producers that went into the cartoon and forgettable-episodic-TV vault. USA rehashes the 1960 Academy Award-winning film Spartacus. But the miniseries that emerged is just too slick for its own good.

It has a good pedigree: it’s based on an acclaimed novel, adapted by a Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter.

But on screen, it has no soul and no emotion. It’s sort of a slave revolt populated by metrosexuals. The wandering tribe of battling former slaves appears to be attended at all times by barbers and stylists who keep them gelled and smudge-free.

For those of you who’ve never seen the original: Spartacus (ER’s Goran Visnjic) is a Thracian enslaved by the Romans in 72 B.C. During gladiator training, he has time to fall in love with the radiant Varinia (Rhona Mitra of The Practice).

One day, during a private match for the pleasure of Crassus (Angus MacFadyen as a rich Roman senator), Spartacus’s opponent spares him and bolts for the gallery in a vain attempt to kill the captors.

He dies, but his “noble” death inspires Spartacus to lead a gladiator uprising.

Two hours of running and fighting ensues. It’s a mob versus Roman legions. You do the math.

Meanwhile, Crassus and his foe Agrippa (a cool and classy final performance by the late Alan Bates) are involved in an elaborate political chess game for control of the Senate. This impacts on the timing and level of response to the revolt crisis.

That’s a lot of narrative to wedge into a four-hour miniseries, and something’s got to give. In the case of this film, it’s character development.

We get a few heart-to-heart scenes between Spartacus and Varinia, and some chin-stroking in the Senate, but other than that, it’s just (rather sterile) fighting.

The telepic might appeal to the 12-to-34 male video-gaming demo, but any thinking viewer will just yawn, and perhaps wait for a rerun of the theatrical version on Turner Classic Movies.

Spartacus debuts on April 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on USA Network.

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