THE LEGEND OF HERCULES Review: An Ungodly Mess
Hercules has been a staple in film and television for decades, and when it comes to the demigod and his adventures, there something for everyone’s tastes. If you’re looking for imports, the Italian filmmaking scene cranked out a series of 19 films in the 1950s and 1960s. Other available godly genres include comedy (1962’s The Three Stooges Meet Hercules), musical (1997’s Hercules, an animated feature from Disney), and a full-blown television series (the six-season Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, starring Kevin Sorbo). But my favorite was a collection of animated TV shorts.
The Mighty Hercules was a collection of cartoon shorts featuring the mythological hero (who used a ring to get his power) and his group of friends, including the young centaur Newton and Pegasus, Hercules’ winged steed. The 5-minute episodes were bundled into 4-5 episode 3-minute blocks. Created in the mid-1960s and rerun in the 1970s, these shorts were a daily childhood staple. I don’t know if I saw all 128 (!) epsiodes, but it sure feels like it.
I knew I wasn’t going to get that kind of nostalgic feeling watching The Legend of Hercules, but I certainly didn’t expect to feel nothing at all.
King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins) is violently conquering rival armies at a pace – and with methodologies – that his wife, Queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) is unhappy with and desperate to stop. With nowhere else to turn but above, Alcmene makes a deal with the gods that will have Zeus impregnate her so that she can birth Hercules, the man who will be responsible for restoring peace. Twenty years later, Amphitryon is still in charge, but Hercules (Kellan Lutz) is poised to make a change.
But there’s a problem. Amphitryon knows Hercules – going by Alcides – isn’t his son (although he doesn’t realize just whose it is). He also arranges a marriage between his other (real) son, the sniveling Iphicles (Liam Garrigan), and the beautiful Hebe (Gaia Weiss), even though Hebe and Hercules are an item. They attempt an escape and are caught, and when Hercules is sent off on a military campaign, his unit is ambushed. He and his captain, Sotiris (Liam McIntyre), are sold into slavery. Hercules, having been told by his mother of his lineage and mission, vows to return home to set things right.
Drawing inspiration from the character Thor (of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and Ridley Scott‘s Best Picture Oscar-winning Gladiator, and visually influenced by recent Asian historical action films, director Renny Harlin and his team of filmmakers – including the actors – offer us The Legend of Hercules, the first film of 2014 to fail on every possible filmmaking level.
Just as is the case when something is across-the-board good, when something is across-the-board bad, the blame starts with the writing. The screenplay, assembled by four different writers (including Harlin), isn’t so much an origin tale as it is a hollow, three-act collection of things that happen. In the first act, McKee has the chance to writhe around alone in bed as if being ravaged by a god so that Hercules can be bred to one day topple his mother’s maniacal husband. Twenty years pass between the first and second acts, fast-forwarding past any chance to develop characters or examine relationships. The second act consists of fight scenes, and the third act consists of one final battle scene. Across all three acts, the dialogue is meant to have that ancient Greece feel to it, but instead sounds like something someone heard on a TV show about ancient Greece. It’s flat and sounds almost hammy.
The actors living this dream do nothing to help their cause. Lutz, in the title role, is simply awful. In his quieter scenes he delivers his lines like he is still searching for them. In those scenes when he is supposed to display leadership and confidence, instead of channeling Hercules, he instead does his best Chris Hemsworth-as-Thor impression, only absent of any leadership or confidence. If you’ve ever wondered what the equation “demigod – gravitas” equals, well, it equals Lutz as Hercules. The other main players are no better and somewhat gender-divided: the actresses are sub-soap opera grade and the actors nearly bite each other’s heads off trying to chew the scenery (as if their prep for the film was watching Gerard Butler in 300 scream “This is Sparta!” on an endless loop).
There is one exception (and thus my half-star rating below): I happen to find McIntyre, as Hercules’ friend Sotiris, a real bright spot. He plays the sidekick role well, and he is sincere in delivering what motivates him to make it back home. Still, it’s equivalent to raving about the Waldorf Pudding served on the Titanic.
Even worse than the all of those things, though, is Harlin’s direction. From the opening battle it is clear that his mindset is not that he is directing a film to be presented in 3D, but rather that he is directing 3D action scenes that he will later compile into a film. So much of the action is built on things that are meant to feel like they are flying out of the screen and at the viewer. I appreciate the desire for this effect in moderation, and selecting shots based on how the depth of the visual will look can be used to great effect (see Iron Man 3 for a great example), but the mass structuring of scenes based on that device simply cripples the film. Harlin also chooses the oddest times introduce slow motion into scenes; again, rather than maximize a moment, he thinks device-first and it shows. Slap it all together with shoddy editing and your finished product looks like … well, it looks like this film.
The Legend of Hercules is one of those films that got a January (2014) release and I was unable to catch it in the theater because I was busy screening Independent Spirit Award nominees as well as catching up with Oscar contenders. Instead I rented it, and let me clearly state that I am happier to have spent 12 bits at Redbox than 12 dollars at the box office.