The surge in Greek mythology tales of late is the same occurrence that happened to sword-and-sandal flicks once Gladiator proved to be so profitable. But it takes much longer for an idea or story to make it to the big screen. By the time people see The Legend of Hercules (if they see it at all) they will have likely forgotten its precursor from a few years ago, the successful Clash of the Titans.
Because of Titans studios are grasping to anything Greek in the hopes of scoring a hit. Hercules seems as good as any figure to bring to film. Popular in mythology and pop culture, the son of Zeus featured in close to twenty Italian productions through the 1950s and ‘60s. He’s been played by the likes of Lou Ferigno, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Kevin Sorbo, the last of whom starred in a cult television show produced by Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead). Just as Hollywood has doubled-up on similar-themed movies in a calendar year (see last year’s Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down), 2014 will be the “Battle of the Herculi,” as we get two pictures about the powerful hero. The first is Renny Harlin’s The Legend of Hercules, and his attempt to make the figure into a 300 cast-off (read: stabbing things in slow motion) and milking the themes and clichés found in a myriad of sword-and-sandal epics big and small.
The film opens on Amphitryon’s (Scott Adkins) conquest of Argos. Twenty years after establishing a kingdom over the land, he arranges a marriage between his first-born son, Iphicles (Liam Garrigan, looking like an anemic Rufus Sewell), and Hebe (Gaia Weiss), the daughter of his former enemy. In true storybook romance fashion, Hebe’s heart belongs to another. That man is Hercules (Kellan Lutz), the demigod who is unaware of his powers or that his real father is the almighty Zeus. Raised as Amphitryon’s son, he is found to be of no value to the kingdom and is banished to the front lines of combat in Egypt alongside Commander Sotiris (Liam McIntyre, of Starz Spartacus fame). Soon the two men are enslaved by enemies and made to battle for the entertainment of others. With each battle Hercules becomes stronger, more confident, as he develops into a hero. Soon he is inspiring those powerless against King Amphitryon’s reign to rise up to defeat him and restore peace with neighboring kingdoms. But for all of this to work Hercules must find faith with the gods, calling on his birth dad to give him the strength on his quest to end up in Hebe’s loving arms again.
And that’s pretty much all there is to this interpretation of the legend. There are no signature moments of dramatic monologues or much attention paid to some of the supporting characters. Instead of trying to strike out on its own with an iota placed on character, director Renny Harlin instead strikes out altogether. The entire film felt like it was the work of Dr. Frankenstein, picking parts that worked in other similar action films to make something that looks all too familiar. The easiest influences to spot are 300 and Gladiator. Both were signature films in the renaissance of sword-and-sandal films in terms of the hero’s journey and overall look. The mimicry on display here is disappointing, again signifying Harlin’s fall from directing grace. In the early ‘90s he was an action director of promise with hit films like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger. He also did cult faves like The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Yet, his best years as a filmmaker seem like a distant memory.
Under his direction the film is devoid of myth and wonder, and instead gives us a man who is just looking to get from point A to point B. The goal is to reunite with his ladylove but goodness me if moments of scheme and betrayal in Hercules’ family aren’t textbook in their depiction.
Without a strong blueprint in terms of story or character development, unless you count trying to follow with what worked in other films and failing in the process, we’re left to suffer the indignity of The Legend of Hercules’ glossy look and hope the audience doesn’t notice how poor the CGI effects look. A kingdom should look like it was made with powerful hands, not with keystrokes and mouse clicks on a computer.
The “speed ramping” approach to the action – where the action moves in slow motion then ramps up – loses its luster quickly when you realize that it’s Harlin capitalizing on a technique that Zack Snyder employed when making 300.
The less said (or in this case written) about the acting may be best. Just know that it’s abysmal. When your expensive, yet cheap-looking epic has to rely on the acting chops of Lutz and Adkins foremost you are in trouble. The true star is the tanning solution for Lutz. Seriously, I want some.
Poor Kellan Lutz. A few years ago he played Poseidon in Immortals (for the life of me I can’t recall if it was a small or sizable role). Now as Hercules, where he’s topless for an unhealthy duration (healthy if you’re a gal), he looks more like He-Man. And he almost has a “BY THE POWER OF GREYSKULL!!” moment in the last act when the clouds start to swirl and lightning strikes.
Trying to find a positive in this feature is difficult. With bloodless violence it comes across as a weak attempt of trying to be badass to ultimately be a bore. But look on the bright side, I’ll get to go through this all again when Dwayne Johnson – already a more physically imposing Hercules – plays the demigod in Hercules: The Thracian Wars.
Director: Renny Harlin
Writers: Daniel Giat, Sean Hood
Notable Cast: Kellan Lutz, Gaia Weiss, Scott Adkins, Roxanne McKee, Liam Garrigan, Liam McIntyre, Rade Serbedzija, Johnathon Schaech