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Spartacus: Blood and Sand

Coming about two years too late to be an absolute knock-off of Zack Snyder's box-office hit "300," but just early enough to capitalize on any renewed interest in mythology-based storytelling (see March's "Clash of the Titans" remake), the Starz network's most ambitious original project to date, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," looks to fill a void on television.

From executive producer Sam Raimi and the creative team that brought us "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Legend of the Seeker," Spartacus, as you may or may not recall from history class or the Kirk Douglas movie, is the story of a soldier who, as a result of his actions, ends up a slave in the Roman court. But Spartacus isn't your average house servant. No, he's sent to gladiator training camp and taught to fight, for the amusement of the masses. Understandably discontent with his lot, Spartacus sews the seeds of revolution among Rome's greatest warriors.

I got a chance to view the first two episodes of the new series, which premieres on Starz January 22, and can tell you I don't really know what to expect in the weeks to come. The pilot episode undeniably pulls all of its inspiration from Snyder's epic, with a level of blood and gore Tarantino could envy. Violent fighting sequences filmed in dramatic slow motion, with clashing sword and shields between men with ripped muscles covered sparingly by cloaks and togas happen every few minutes. Not too sparse are also the sex scenes, which are graphic and filmed with the same level of detail as the battle sequences.

In great contrast, the second episode diverges from the visual style of the first. Intact are the sex and violence, but the story shifts to include political intrigue, adulterous lust, and glimpses of where the season may lead us. Performances from John Hannah and Lucy Lawless are solid, as a married couple fighting to keep their place in the hierarchy of the times. Though, Lawless' blinding red hair could use a shade or two tone-down. A welcome new face to the screen is Andy Whitfield, who's portrayal of the title character doesn't fall into Gerard Butler-Russel Crowe stereotypes of the genre.

My short take is fans of the genre should soldier through the rough pilot for the more satisfying second episode to see where the story takes us. The good news for fans out there is there's sure to be more after the initial episodes. In an unusually bold move for any network, Starz has ordered a second season, "Spartacus: Vengeance," before the current series has even premiered.

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