All right, so everything worth making in the first place — and plenty of things that weren’t — will eventually be remade, which brings us to what might be billed as “‘Spartacus’ — With a cast of dozens!” Not surprisingly pallid next to the majestic 1960 epic starring Kirk Douglas, this two-part production boasts a great-looking cast (who knew gladiators always had their hair just right?) and fine moments. Ultimately, though, it’s best left to an audience unfamiliar with the original — or better yet, those who just want to see that hunky “ER” doctor in a tunic.
It’s not hard to discern USA’s longform strategy, a combination of ripped-from-the-headlines crime (Laci Peterson, the D.C. Sniper, Heidi Fleiss) and cashing in on the kind of identifiable, similarly easy-to-market titles (“Traffic,” “Helen of Troy,” now this) that require scant introduction.
Still, given the all-star cast and grandiose scale of the first stab, daring to trot out “Spartacus MMIV” with performers principally known as supporting players in primetime series amounts to sticking out your chin and praying nobody mentions Olivier, Laughton or Ustinov.
Admittedly, there are significant differences in the narrative to help set this “Spartacus” apart from its predecessor, due in part to the liberties previously taken with Howard Fast’s novel. Even so, film buffs will still find themselves wondering, to no avail, when the memorable and moving “I’m Spartacus!” scene is going to happen.
Ample emotion nevertheless resides in this historic story of a slave who led a massive rebellion against the Romans circa 72 B.C. Despite a less florid approach than the movie, there is considerable romance in his attachment to the lovely Varinia (“The Practice’s” Rhona Mitra) — whose beauty, alas, renders her a target for lascivious Roman hands.
The story derives its strength, however, from the juxtaposition of political intrigue with actual military combat. On the former score, various players in the Roman senate jockey for authority, with the wily Agrippa (the late Alan Bates) seeking to thwart the ambitious and brutal Crassus (Angus Macfadyen), who wants to use the slave revolt as cover to seize control of the republic.
As for Spartacus (Goran Visnjic), his journey from slave to gladiator to reluctant rebel leader is inspired by Draba (“NYPD Blue’s” impressively chiseled Henry Simmons), whose inexplicable act of mercy in the arena awakens the survivor to lead the slaves against their masters.
Once they escape, Spartacus’ followers travel the countryside, liberating other slaves and repeatedly vanquishing the overconfident Romans despite their superior numbers. The fugitives must also deal with internal dissent in the form of Crixus (Paul Kynman), who favors a direct assault against Rome that Spartacus realizes will spell disaster.
As conceived by Fast — a Marxist who was blacklisted and jailed during the McCarthy era and died last year at 88 — “Spartacus” spoke to the lust for freedom among the downtrodden as well as the tyranny of elites. Yet the screenplay by Robert Schenkkan carries more recent, not-so-subtle echoes, with Crassus capitalizing on the senate’s fears, warning that the threat to “national security” means “only a fool or a traitor could possibly oppose” his self-serving measures to secure the peace and consolidate power.
As epics go, “Spartacus’ ” thin resources are exposed during the second hour, when the intricate martial gamesmanship is illustrated through a series of unremarkable battles, light on both scope and drama.
Director Robert Dornhelm fares somewhat better with his actors, thanks in part to Visnjic’s affable world-weariness and Mitra’s exquisite cheekbones. And while not nearly as toothy as Laughton, Bates delivers an engaging performance — his last, sadly, as the actor died in December.
Macfadyen — who played a weak-willed noble against the backdrop of rebellion in “Braveheart” — has the most thankless task, not only playing opposite Bates in most scenes but having to live in the shadow of Olivier, who indelibly defined the role through a combination of strutting ego and confused longing. The mini’s weakest device, in fact, involves dream sequences in which Crassus imagines confronting Spartacus; more than anything, these resemble an ad for Calvin Klein’s Obsession.
Rife with brutality, though seldom excessively graphic, the production values here register below “Helen,” which also came under the aegis of exec producers Adam Shapiro and Angela Mancuso.
Granted, it’s easy enough to say that such revivals breathe new life into classics, reintroducing them to generations that would otherwise possess little incentive to seek out such material, which is true to an extent.
Nevertheless, if it’s inevitable that “Spartacus” must be resurrected again, let’s hope the next lapse is at least as long.