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'Empire' falls on trite action


When in Rome, ABC can't do as the ancient Romans did.

The current furor over television indecency obviously limits Empire, a lavish drama about the power struggle after Julius Caesar's assassination. The program uses quick, flashy editing to suggest gladiatorial violence and orgiastic hanky-panky.

Yet the six-hour miniseries, which starts tomorrow at 9 p.m. on WMAR, Channel 2, feels limited in other, more profound ways. The story, a liberal mix of history and fiction, takes adventurous leaps that strain credulity. The main fiction is Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), a gladiator whose presence evokes the Oscar-winning, and far-superior, Gladiator.

The political intrigue unfolds in a muddled manner as practiced by these mostly tepid figures.

It's 44 B.C., and Tyrannus' brilliance as a fighter prompts Caesar (Colm Feore) to enlist the gladiator as bodyguard. Tyrannus stumbles on the job when kidnappers take his son. Tyrannus goes after them, leaving the boss at the mercy of stab-happy senators.

The dying ruler asks Tyrannus to protect his chosen heir, 18-year-old nephew Octavius (Santiago Cabrera).

Empire then becomes the far-fetched travels of mismatched companions. Harsh he-man Tyrannus and boyish brat Octavius go on the run, overcome dire predicaments and sort out the intrigue. Hundreds of cops and cowboys have moseyed down a similar trail.

Tyrannus displays lightning reflexes and daunting stamina. Octavius graduates from sullen playboy to eloquent politician. The two actors tackle their heroic chores with gusto, but Empire reduces history to a trite action movie.

The writing and acting render the duo's foes less formidable than they should be. Brutus (James Frain) comes off as a fearful mama's boy. Cassius (Michael Maloney) emerges as a tiresome prig. Mark Antony (Vincent Regan) is a burly sleaze, not someone to command his countrymen's attention.

But Empire looks good even when it doesn't sound authentic. The Italian countryside receives a tourism-boosting showcase, and the miniseries rolls out first-class costumes and sets.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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