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A tossed Caesar salad

ABC's 'Empire' slices and dices several movie genres into light summer fare. It's positively epic-urian.

June 26, 2005|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Empire," which debuts Tuesday on ABC with the customary "two-hour special" and runs its course in hour-long installments over the following four weeks, is a perfect summer entertainment, a melodrama of ancient Rome with not much on its mind but the flash of swords and of skin. Though it has been made at some obvious expense, filmed on location in south-central Italy and on a Roman back lot, with an eye for period detail and atmosphere, it is textually a load of old Latin hooey, wrapped up in a bouquet of Hollywood cliches. It's a coming-of-age story, a buddy picture, a road movie, and a historical romance that manages to seem more epic than it actually is. There is a soupcon of sex and more than a smattering of violence -- but in each case the picture implies more than it shows and indeed shows just how little you need to show to make the point.

Nosing in ahead of HBO's longer, more expensive, similarly set "Rome," which begins in the fall, "Empire" follows the progress of Julius Caesar's young nephew Octavius (Santiago Cabrera) as he turns from boy to man under the exasperated care of a superheroic gladiator named Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake) in the wake of Caesar's assassination. In this particular version of the Roman world, Caesar (Colm Feore) is a proto-socialist visionary taken down by fat-cat senators who fear his plans for agrarian land reform. As Caesar's adopted son and heir, Octavius is next in line for the old "et tu" and must fly from Rome to save his skin.

There are variously echoes of "Gladiator," "Star Wars," "The Lord of the Rings" and "Henry V" (callow youth becomes bold leader, makes stirring climactic speech to outnumbered happy few -- well, not so happy, really, but definitely outnumbered). "Your path is dark and dangerous, young Caesar," Octavius is told -- substitute "Skywalker" for "Caesar" and you're George Lucas. When not lurking incognito like a couple of hooded Jedis, Tyrannus plays Obi-wan Kenobi to Octavius' Luke (or Aragorn to his Frodo), training him in swordplay and survival. (When Tyrannus busts out his signature move -- a showy, two-handed sword twirl, with "swoosh" effects laid into the soundtrack -- it's exciting in the silliest way.) And there's Cicero (Michael Byrne), hanging about like a taller, less green Yoda.

A familiar ring

Resemblances to the hobbit movie begin at the beginning, as a low female voice describes a transitional moment in the history of an earlier Earth: "The Republic is dying, and the age of the gladiator is done." (But not quite yet -- it has six hours left in it at least.) Later there will indeed be some business with a ring of (imperial) power, and a "lost brigade" that serves a function identical to Tolkien's army of the dead. (They are even described as "dead," but they aren't really.) Though it is surprisingly humorless, the film never makes the mistake of taking its business too seriously -- it is light fare, made for popcorn and pajamas, and if there were a way to watch it from a car, that would be just about perfect.

As to the actual history "Empire" messes with, while the bildungsroman plot is completely cooked up, the fact-based characters agree in general terms with their historic counterparts and for the most part regard one another with the documented degree of affection or (more often) suspicion. Not that any of that matters much -- most of us are so dimly schooled in the events of antiquity that if Hercules were to show up on the scene with his lion skin and club and Cupid sitting on his shoulder, it wouldn't seem unreasonable. And it happened so very long ago, after all.

As such adventures typically do, the plot breaks down to the pure of heart versus the power-hungry, with the absolutely fictional Tyrannus and the vestal virgin Camane (future superstar Emily Blunt of "My Summer of Love") the purest of them all. Camane, a beautiful young priestess who breaks her vow of political neutrality to do the right thing for Rome, becomes a love interest for Octavius, who along with everything else is a Tiger Beat hunk who finds plenty of occasions to let his toga slip from his shoulders. Beneath the intrigue, they're just a boy and girl locked in an impossible love. (She may be a vestal virgin, but by Juno, she's a woman too.)

That the series was cut during production from eight hours to six may explain why the ending feels rushed and half-baked. But it isn't fatal. An accomplished, even overqualified, largely British cast keeps things lively and distracts the viewer from asking too many questions. Along with the above-mentioned players there are, among others, Vincent Regan, brilliant as a subtly psycho Mark Anthony; Fiona Shaw (who has played Medea opposite co-star Cake) as Mrs. Mark Anthony; Michael Maloney (Laertes in the Kenneth Branagh "Hamlet"), whose Cassius -- looking lean and hungry as per Shakespeare -- is the show's locus of evil (his is the wittiest performance); and Brutus (James Frain), a confused whiner trying to act on principle, far from being the noblest Roman of them all.

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