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The Monitor: ‘Deadliest Warrior’

The Spike series is now in its second season of pitting mayhem-minded combatants of different eras against each other but under lab conditions.

April 25, 2010|By Jon Caramanica, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Last week, on the second-season premiere of "Deadliest Warrior" (10 p.m. Tuesdays on Spike), a handsome, well-muscled gentleman named Tim stripped off his shirt and took one for history.

A few feet away stood a man with a Taser, who fired it into Tim's back, its talons embedding into his skin while he convulsed and was laid on the ground by two aides. Geoffrey Desmoulin, one of the show's hosts and a pain enthusiast, screamed in ecstasy: "Tase him, bro!"

Part fantasy sports league, part historical reenactment, part Consumer Reports field test, part video game, part torture porn, part monster-truck rally color commentary, "Deadliest Warrior" is an unconventional hybrid, yet unmistakably demographic-driven. In each episode, two battle-happy historical figures or groups vie against each other in an imaginary showdown. Generally, the combatants date to different time periods and hail from different countries, but the show's hypothetical tone is intentional and crucial: What matters is not any authoritative answer about which warrior is superior but only that a maximum of gore is achieved.

The show's reenactments and simulations are helmed by a troika of experts — Desmoulin, a biomedical engineer; Armand Dorian, an emergency-room doctor; and Max Geiger, a computer programmer. That they have technical expertise is a nice touch, but mostly they're there to demonstrate how ostensibly serious men can turn giddy at the tiniest drop of fake blood.

When the blood spurts like a geyser, as it often does on "Deadliest Warrior," all the better. Last week's season premiere, which pitted a prototypical American police SWAT team against Germany's anti-terrorism squad, the GSG 9, delivered plenty of simulated viscera and as much tough talk from the participants. Said one of the SWAT experts of a German grenade: "I think it makes for a nice party popper."

For each showdown, period weapons are field-tested on gelatin human models with carefully crafted innards. Kill shots, of which there are many, are cooed over like a newborn baby. "While the nose is a little bit better of a place to shoot somebody, the eye's not so bad either," Dorian said last week on a special episode revisiting the victors of Season 1 in a royal rumble, split into pre- and post-gunpowder categories. (The winners were the Spartans and the Russian Spetsnaz.)

Once the weapons are evaluated — each side gets four typically — the results are entered into a computer simulation program by Slitherine Strategies, a video game company, which is run 1,000 times. At the conclusion of each show, actors simulate a prototypical battle to give flesh to the results.

Even for those without subscriptions to Soldier of Fortune, it's alternately gruesome and entrancing, this blend of semi-serious historical scholarship and brutal violence. Some weapons are awe-inspiring, like the flamethrower employed by the Irish Republican Army, or the ballista, a bulky javelin cannon employed by Alexander the Great's army. Watching the hosts fawn over them feels like eavesdropping on locker-room pep talks.

Add to that the show's sinister voice-overs —- credited to a Drew Skye, who bears a suspicious resemblance to David Wenham, who played Dilios in "300." Even basic sentences are unnerving as spoken by him, but the show isn't shy about unleashing him. On the naginata, a sword used by the samurai, he exults: "Seven feet of carving power!" On the Remington 870 shotgun, used by Germany's GSG 9: "Seven-and-a-half pounds of mind-blowing death!"

This week'sepisode features Robert Borsos, an expert horseback archer, demonstrating his skills in the tradition of Attila the Hun's army. He's one of many impressive experts the show imports. In last week's showdown episode, footage of a Spetsnaz-trained expert stonefacedly taking a gut punch from Desmoulin, who's built like a tight end, was harrowing. (The show also has a thorough website with oodles of bonus video content.)

In between the blood droplets, "Deadliest Warrior" has some Achilles' heels. Sometimes, the weaponry of the combatants doesn't line up: In next week's episode, a lasso, used by Attila the Hun, is put up against a xyston, a heavy spear used by Alexander the Great, in what appears to be a ludicrous match. During the weapons-testing part of each episode, there's no accounting for the people, generally outside experts, who are using them, meaning that poorly rated weapons may just reflect poorly trained operatives. Finally, after almost 40 minutes of buildup, the acted-out reenactments, reliably violent, are disproportionately short and frustratingly reductive, like a multiple-choice answer to an essay question.

And yet each week's outcomes have a pleasing randomness to them. Last season, the Taliban got as fair a shake as the yakuza or the Apache Indians. Later this season, the Nazi SS will take on the Viet Cong, and Somali pirates will take on the Medellin drug cartel.

For "Deadliest Warrior," enthusiasm for mayhem breeds an ideological agnosticism — brutality knows no politics.

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