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Review: Starz's 'Spartacus: Vengeance'

Starz returns to the sandals-and swords genre for the third time with Spartacus: Vengeance, with a new lead man and his gladiator troupe liberated from the luddus that bound them.

Australian actor Liam McIntyre is now manning the title role, following the death of Andy Whitfield, who portrayed the title character in Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which bowed in January 2010, from Non-Hodgkins' Lymphoma last September.

McIntyre's Spartacus is torn between heading the band of rebels against Rome and exacting revenge against Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), the commander who sold he and his wife Sura into slavery, which ultimately cost her life.

Spartacus displays early leadership qualities by temporarily stopping one of his charges from going blood-lust berserk, imploring the gladiator to take stock and take anything valuable from the soldiers that fell during their ambush. He also makes sure that a bounty of food is shared properly among the roving band of slaves, not just savored by those who procured it.

After his woman, Mira (Katina Law), and Crixus (Manu Bennett), the man he replaced as the top gladiator at the House of Batiatus, rebuke him for a risky daytime attack against his nemesis Glaber, Spartacus seemingly embraces his new role. He recognizes the need for an alliance with the Gaul gladiators, indulging their leader Crixus' quest to find his lady Naevia (now played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson), who is being passed around from new master to new master. As the band pursues Naevia, Spartacus entreats the newly freed slaves to join their battle against Rome, quickly moving them to equal status with his brotherhood.

Other old friends and foes -- Oenomaus (Peter Mensah), the former trainer known as Doctore, Ilithyia (Viva Bianca), Glaber's spoiled wife, and Ashur (Nick Tarabay) -- return to new circumstances. Lucy Lawless' character Lucretia also is back, after somehow surviving the orgy/massacre alongside Ilythia at the House of Batiatus that claimed the lives of her husband (John Hannah) and other Roman dignitaries and unchained Spartacus and crew. Their back stories, via flashbacks, are intermingled with the new narrative --- in her case, Lucretia is now seen as prophet/puppet of sorts by Glaber, despite protestations from his wife, who shared more than secrets with her former friend.
Blood, drawn via slices or crushing blows, again comes spurting in slow, CG-lingering glory. Viewers must endure a disembowelment, but are spared the full Monty of a castration by sword. Still, the overuse of red -- the screen on occasion is covered in splatter before dissolving to the next scene -- not only desensitizes, but reduces the violence to a video game.

As with its franchise forbears, Vengeance also reminds of Romans' taste for the flesh, with male and female full frontal nudity, plus snippets of varied homosexual and heterosexual acts.

Word to the wise: Those who like to engage would do well to keep their togas and tunics nearby, Spartacus' band of not-so merry men prefer to attack villas and whore houses before the sun rises.
The language is also worth a careful listen. While a euphemism for the male appendage is aurally unsheathed throughout the first two episodes, much of the dialogue is imagined old school, stilted and poetic.
Consider this exchange between Mira and newly freed slave Chadra (Bonnie Sveen), whose conversation begins by sizing up the shortcomings of Gauls, in particular, and men, in general, when it comes to love-making.
Chadra: "And what of Spartacus, how does he stand?"
Mira, looking longingly at Spartacus: "He stands above the rest in all regards."
Chadra: "Apologies I did not know he was yours."
Mira: "I do not claim in such terms, nor would he be so enslaved."
Chadra: "He offers you protection in return for affections?"
Mira: "We have no such arrangement."
Chadra: "Is it love then? " Mira looks away, perplexed, before her companion continues: "Of course, the hope of love to come... a danger in its own right."
Spartacus: Vengeance, with its juxtaposition of florid speech and more primal human callings, and storytelling, melding new and seasons past, is a guilty pleasure in its own right on Friday nights.
Spartacus: Vengeance premieres on Starz at Jan. 27 at 10 p.m. (ET/PT)