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TV review: Fact or fantasy, 'Da Vinci's Demons' a delight

Leonardo da Vinci was an inventor, artist, polymath, visionary and free thinker--a genius who is the very definition of the term Renaissance Man.

Viewers of "Da Vinci's Demons" (9 p.m. April 12, Starz; 3.5 stars out of 4) also will have to be free thinkers to enjoy Starz's unapologetically entertaining new drama from the Dark Knight Trilogy writer David S. Goyer. This is not Da Vinci we know from history classes as the elderly, bearded painter of such masterpieces as "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper."

In Goyer's "historical fantasy" set in Renaissance Florence, 20-something Leo is a hair gel-wearing lover who swings both ways, a detective of sorts, an opium smoker, weapons developer and a troubled but merry prankster. He's not quite the superheroes of Goyer's "Blade" trilogy or this summer's "Man of Steel," but he is a fabulously flawed human who can't help but be heroic.

"Da Vinci's Demons" can't help but get your blood pumping, too, if only for its creative depiction of the inventor's process and the enthusiasm star Tom Riley injects into his character as Leo achieves the high standards he sets for himself. (And if that doesn't do it, there's plenty of the sex and swordplay apparently required of cable period pieces these days.)

Goyer, who also directed the first two episodes, brings Leo's creative process to breathtaking life by using da Vinci's famous sketches in animated form. In the premiere, Leo has his devoted apprentice Nico (Eros Vlahos) toss birds his way. As they race toward the inventor in beautiful slow motion and he furiously sketches their wings, those sketches fly off his page and onto the screen.

Riley is as charismatic as those scenes are imaginative. Equal parts cocky and haunted, his Leo carelessly flouts authority and is prone to eccentric habits, but quickly falls into despair as he struggles with feelings of alienation brought on by his unhappy early years and an unhealthy obsession with destiny.

In the first hour, we meet Leo's real family, including his right-hand man of sorts, Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin), Vanessa the former nun who poses nude for him (Hera Hilmar), and Nico. Their tomfoolery--and Leo's efforts to get his benefactor Lorenzo Medici's (Elliott Cowan) lover, Lucrezia (Laura Haddock), into bed--are interrupted by an encounter with a mysterious man called "The Turk" (Alexander Siddig), who sparks Leo's interest in the mythical "Book of Leaves."

The book quest sets him on a collision course with the Vatican, and evil Pope Sixtus (James Faulkner) sends his more sadistic nephew, Count Girolamo Riario (standout Blake Ritson), to woo or kill Leo and to set in motion a conspiracy to bring down Medici Florence.

The mystical mumbo-jumbo nearly derails the proceedings, but Goyer reins in the hokum in favor of frolicking adventure that's more fun than fact. ("Downton Abbey" star Hugh Bonneville has a hilarious cameo as the naked Duke of Milan that will have fans of that more staid show rethinking exactly what the Earl of Grantham does behind closed doors.)

Like Leo and his pals, "Da Vinci's Demons" never takes itself too seriously. Yet it's serious about delighting viewers.

Watch the premiere below.

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Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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