As Spartacus, the Roman gladiator who led a slave uprising in 73 B.C., Goran Visnjic brings the soothing, heavy-lidded, bedside manner of Dr. Luka Kovac, his ER character, to the role. He's intense, quiet, thoughtful, well-intentioned. But would you follow this guy into battle? His Spartacus is a reluctant, indecisive leader. Donald Trump would make mincemeat of him in the boardroom. Kirk Douglas, who starred as Spartacus in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic, could be hammy, but he oozed charisma from every well-oiled pore. You can feel his pride in the movie's most stirring scene, when his defeated troops, seeking to conceal their leader's identity, rise one by one and declare, "I am Spartacus." That scene, curiously, is one of the few not recycled by this plodding four-hour miniseries based, like the movie, on Howard Fast's 1951 novel. The elements are all there: Spartacus's transformation from feisty gold-mine slave into the A-Rod of gladiators, his touchingly chaste first night with Varinia, the slave woman who would become his wife (vacuously portrayed by Sweet Home Alabama's Rhona Mitra), and the shocking self-sacrifice of a glad-school rival (NYPD Blues' Henry Simmons) that ignites the bloody rebellion. But the way these scenes and others play out evokes the thumping, budget-conscious banality of Xena: Warrior Princess.
The battles are particularly underwhelming. You rarely get a sense of the guerrilla ingenuity that enabled Spartacus's vastly outnumbered army to defeat superior Roman legions. The only touch of credibility is provided by two British actors (cast, of course, as Roman senators—one of Hollywood's most venerable clichés). The late Sir Alan Bates, in his last screen role, imbues Agrippa, a rotund, canny elder statesman, with acerbic dignity, while Angus MacFadyen (Braveheart) makes Spartacus's archenemy Crassus a villain so beguilingly—and enjoyably—evil that he deserves his own miniseries. I, Crassus? I'd watch.