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The dark side of da Vinci

Cable drama takes a look at genius from decidedly different angle

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Tom Riley is an unorthodox Leonardo da Vinci.

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Tom Riley is an unorthodox Leonardo da Vinci.

Any student of history -- heck, anyone who's ever been a student at all -- would recognize Leonardo da Vinci as one of the world's greatest multi-faceted intellects -- a painter, sculptor, inventor, mathematician, engineer, anatomist, cartographer, writer and more.

But only a viewer of the new made-for-cable drama Da Vinci's Demons might think of the legendary Italian Renaissance thinker as a rabble-rouser, a womanizer, a deadly ambidextrous swordsman, a drinker, an incorrigible late-night carouser and an opium-smoking idealistic dreamer.

Da Vinci's Demons, which premi®res Friday, June 14 at 8 p.m. on Super Channel, is the latest drama offering from U.S. cable's Starz network, the specialty service that gave us four seasons of the blood-soaked and sex-obsessed CGI spectacle Spartacus (which aired in western Canada on Movie Central).

Clearly, the goal with Da Vinci's Demons is to capitalize on, and build upon, the audience generated by Spartacus, Starz's most successful and longest-running original series to date. In addition to the necessary nods to science, art and invention that must be part of any drama focused on the great man, this "historical fantasy drama (that) follows the 'untold' story of the world's greatest genius" also delivers generous helpings of sex and violence, set against an ornate 15th-century backdrop that is completely the product of 21st-century digital-effects wizardry.

The tone of the series is set in its first few moments, as 25-year-old Leonardo da Vinci (played by Tom Riley) is invited to share an opium pipe with a mysterious Turkish visitor. OK, so the genius is into mind-expanding drugs. Next, the action flashes back a few days and we see Leo in a sun-soaked meadow, sketching feverishly while flirting with a topless female model; moments later, he convinces a young assistant to strap himself to a cumbersome, kite-like device so he can test its airworthiness by towing it behind a horse-drawn wagon that he sets careening across the meadow.

Back in the medieval muck of downtown Florence, da Vinci catches the eye of the beautiful Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock), who, as the mistress of powerful nobleman Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan), represents exactly the sort of forbidden fruit that headstrong (and groin-steered) Leonardo can't resist.

When he gets into yet another brush with the law, defending a stranger being bullied by soldiers in a tavern, we learn that Leonardo is the bastard son of a member of the royal court, and that his father has almost run out of patience when it comes to extricating the young genius from the trouble he creates for himself.

Da Vinci's mischief, however, seems quite trifling when compared to the power-crazed antics of the Medici clan or, even worse, the blood-thirsty savagery of the papacy. Indeed, there's much menacing madness afoot.

By the end of the series premi®re, series creator David S. Goyer (co-writer of the Dark Knight trilogy) has created a narrative that is labyrinthian, preposterous and yet somehow oddly compelling. His whimsical re-imagining of da Vinci as an action hero (portrayed with likable panache by Riley) is patently silly but rather entertaining to watch, sort of a 15th-century version of James Bond who's probably as close as his pre-nuclear age could come to spawning a superhero.

Simply put, it's good, dumb summer fun.


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Checking in: Also premiering Friday on Super Channel (at 9 p.m., after Da Vinci) is Season 2 of the retro-cool drama Magic City, which follows the efforts of circa-1960 Florida hotelier Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to maintain his Miramar Playa Hotel's status as a stylish Miami Beach destination while trying to extricate himself from the Mob ties that originally financed his dream.

The series' sophomore season features the arrival of new cast member James Caan as an organized-crime boss from Chicago who takes a dangerous interest in goings-on at the Miramar Playa. Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 13, 2013 c8


Updated on Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 10:06 AM CDT: adds fact box

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