What ensues, alas, is the gladiator's life as filtered through the gauzy lens of a Calvin Klein ad.
Presumably the title “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” was chosen for Starz’s latest dramatic foray because “300: Blood and Sand” or “Gladiator: Sand and Blood” wouldn’t clear legal. In any event, there’s scant resemblance between this dreadful blend of those recent movies and the program’s ostensible namesake, as the show tries to adopt “300′s” visual style and — despite spilling buckets of gore — proves woefully pale by comparison. Indeed, when the smoke clears from this blood-splattered battle, the survivors will likely stand and sheepishly plead, “I’m not ‘Spartacus!’ Please, don’t confuse me with ‘Spartacus!’”Just to put this appraisal in context, the original 1960 classic remains a personal favorite, and I’m extremely fond of the other aforementioned efforts — so this hardly represents an aversion to swords and sandals. There is, however, considerable irritation over such a brazen, at-times-laughable attempt to piggyback on their success. A Thracian warrior, the strong-willed man eventually christened Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) joins with the Romans to fight off a common enemy, but winds up being thrown into the gladiatorial arena when he refuses to obey their commands. Separated from his woman (Erin Cummings), he essentially girds his loins to endure all manner of torment in order to survive, on the outside chance the two might be reunited, which includes bonding himself to gladiator master Batiatus (“The Mummy’s” John Hannah) and his steely trainer, Doctore (Peter Mensah, whose “300″ cameo provides a promotionally advantageous link). What ensues, alas, is the gladiator’s life as filtered through the gauzy lens of a Calvin Klein ad. Sure, there’s some graphic sex and modest court intrigue among the haughty Romans, but nothing to approach the worst moments in HBO’s “Rome.” (“Xena’s” Lucy Lawless — the wife of series producer Robert Tapert — loyally chips in as Batiatus’ lustful spouse, who has an insatiable hunger for gladiators and, like the rest of the cast, scenery.) Written by “Smallville” alum Steven S. DeKnight, lines of dialogue at times appear to uncomfortably echo those earlier movies, which is less irksome than it would be otherwise, because the less-familiar exchanges (“My boot will find your ass in the afterlife”) are frequently risible. Unlike the sex, no one could call the violence gratuitous, since it’s the sole reason the show exists — an excuse to artfully spray slow-motion patterns of entrails and severed limbs across the screen. To be fair, the program does improve marginally after the premiere, but by then the bar’s set so low a three-legged horse could clear it. And while one can hardly expect a budget on the scale of “Avatar,” the stylized, washed-out backgrounds and crowd sequences simply aren’t up to the standards of a young-male audience weaned on better. Thus far, Starz has relied on presold titles (first “Crash,” now this) to ease the marketing burden in launching original dramas, but if the pay channel wants to become a serious presence under just-installed CEO Chris Albrecht, future endeavors will need to exhibit a few brains to augment the brawn. Until then, “Spartacus” earns a big, very bloody thumbs down.