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Story of 'Caesar' turned into boring fare

Sunday, June 29, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It took a few years, but this is what the success of "Gladiator" has wrought.

Just two months ago, USA aired the four-hour "Helen of Troy" miniseries. Now TNT gets into the swords-and-sandals act with "Caesar," a retelling of the Julius Caesar story that begins in his youth.

TV Review
When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow on TNT.
Starring: Jeremy Sisto, Chris Noth, Christopher Walken, Richard Harris.

Unless you're a die-hard fan of the genre, this "Caesar" is a long slog. Part two opens with 20 minutes of Caesar's siege of Gaul and a battle that's often difficult to make heads or tails of. The enemy is in a fortress, Caesar builds walls around that outpost, and then where the attack comes from and which side it's directed toward is not entirely clear.

Jeremy Sisto ("Six Feet Under") plays the title character, who begins as one of the persecuted but becomes drunk with power and ultimately behaves as one of the persecutors.

In addition to Caesar, the film tracks the doings of Roman general Pompey (Chris Noth) and Roman Senator Cato (Christopher Walken, who, after all his "Saturday Night Live" appearances, now seems to be parodying himself).

After piquing interest early in tonight's beginning, "Caesar" bogs down as the swords are unsheathed and Caesar marches toward Gaul. The miniseries picks up again toward the conclusion tomorrow night once Brutus (Ian Duncan) begins his plotting and Calpurnia (Valeria Golino) despairs over Caesar's relationship with Cleopatra (Samuela Sardo), but it's still not worth the investment of four hours.

Even toward the end, what should be an emotional crescendo just feels rote. Not enough is done to establish the relationship between Caesar and Brutus to make his betrayal all that personal.

In my previous miniseries review, I called CBS's "Hitler" better than average. Only after that review went to press did it hit me that I really need to qualify that statement because the average has fallen so far below what it once was.

In the '80s, miniseries like "North and South," "The Winds of War" and even the original "V" were masterful stories full of vivid characters. Today, particularly in historic sagas, it's a herky-jerky affair, a series of scenes pegged to a timeline with no emphasis on themes and little interest in multidimensional characters. At least the first five hours of Sci Fi Channel's "Taken" held together dramatically before that miniseries pooped out toward the end.

"Caesar" suffers from less-than-agile plotting as much as other contemporary minis. It's mostly a long, boring affair. What life there is comes in tonight's part one with the late Richard Harris as the wicked Sulla, commander-in-chief of the Roman army.

"What a big heart that boy has," Sulla says of young Caesar. "Bring it to me in the morning."

The script by Peter Pruce and Craig Warner has a few gems such as this in the early going, but any slyness soon dries up and the dialogue ceases to ring.

Director Uli Edel, who also helmed TNT's "Mists of Avalon," turns in a far less enjoyable film this go around. There's plenty of juicy drama to be mined in the Caesar story, yet this version is mostly inert and not nearly as tangy as the salad that bears the Roman leader's name.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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