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If the strapping but hardly muscle-bound lead actor in The Legend of Hercules, Kellan Lutz, were to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the star of this summer’s Hercules, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the fight would likely be over in less than a minute. Along the same lines, Brett Ratner‘s MGM/Paramount epic, due in July, would have to be very bad indeed to feel threatened by Renny Harlin‘s quarter-pounder layered with many slices of cheese. Just as it did last year when it rushed Olympus Has Fallen into the marketplace three months before the far more expensive and starry White House Down — to the latter’s commercial detriment — Millennium Films is trying to steal the bigger film’s thunder with a cut-rate version of the same thing. But this first major release of 2014 functions only to help insure that this January will be no different from Januaries past, as the customary worst month of the year for new movies.
Although it clearly aspires to the 300 style of hyper-inflated, attenuated action, this Bulgaria-shot pseudo-epic is marked by CGI sequences so patently phony, particularly toward the beginning, that it could often be mistaken for a mediocre animated film rather than live action, an affliction only magnified by the arbitrary and unimaginative use of 3D. A lion wrestled by the hero into submission early on is so fake looking that it would appear more at home on a children’s cartoon show.
Nor does the script by Sean Hood and Daniel Giat have much to do with the more commonly known aspects of the Hercules mythology, such as the famous twelve labors. Rather, it quite optimistically positions itself as a sort-of origins story, cursorily charting early adventures of its hero by making liberal use of scenes and situations from famous films about antiquity; among those sampled are Ben-Hur (the captive hero being put to work as a boat rower), Gladiator (his enslavement only redeemable in the arena) and Spartacus (the prisoner rising up to lead a mass revolt against the barbarous regime).
And going very much against the grain, this Hercules is portrayed as a one-woman man, a fellow whose fighting spirit is roused principally by the fear that, if he doesn’t get back to Greece from Egypt within three moons, his modelish blond girlfriend Hebe (Gaia Weiss) will marry his treacherous rival.
If The Legend of Hercules were just a little more inept or over-the-top, it might have been ridiculous fun. As it is, unfortunately, Harlin embraces the mediocrity of the screenplay with a dour straight face, draining it of any enjoyably camp possibilities. He also covers and edits sequences in arbitrary ways that betray no awareness of how to present, much less build, scenes dramatically. Nor is there a sensibility here with any evident sympatico for the epic format.
When Argos is overrun in 1200 B.C., Amphitryon (Scott Adkins, nothing if not intense) takes over as king and takes the queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee, giving a lonely good performance) as his own. Sympathetic to her plight, the great Zeus impregnates her in order to sire a hero who may, two decades hence, avenge his mother. Just after the birth, Amphitryon is informed that Alcmene has had “a large boy.”
Large he is, so much so that, once he turns twenty, there’s not enough room in town for him and Amphitryon’s yellow-bellied son and designated successor, Iphicles (Liam Garrigan). Taken prisoner in an Egyptian cave after a battle, Hercules and his cohort Sotiris (appealing Liam McIntyre, the last Spartacus on TV), in a rush to get home, hustle a fight-game entrepreneur (Kenneth Cranham as a poor cousin to Peter Ustinov in the film Spartacus) to pit them in long-odds combat, concluding in a homecoming match in which Hercules takes on six of Greece’s finest fighting men. Even when Hercules seems to incur injuries, they don’t slow him down or cause any real damage; it must be that god gene.
But even the fight and battle scenes are unexciting because they’re bogus, contrived and derivative; are we supposed to ooh and aah at twists and turns and stutter-action moves that began seeming old a year after The Matrix came out, and have been outdone by countless video games? The production’s scale, like everything else, is unimpressive.
About the only line that gets a good laugh comes late on, when the Hercules’s legend leads to shock and awe among downtrodden peasants and besieged villagers when they actually see him. “Is it true, you are Hercules, the god?” a man inquires. “No, I’m just a man,” comes the reply.
He’s also the star of two movies this year, at least one of them lousy.
Opens: January 10 (Lionsgate)
Production: Summit Entertainment, Millennium Films, Nu Boyana Productions
Cast: Kellan Lutz, Scott Adkins, Liam McIntyre, Liam Garrigan, Johnathon Schaech, Roxana McKee, Gaia Weiss, Rade Serbedzija, Kenneth Cranham, Mariah Gale, Luke Newberry
Director: Renny Harlin
Screenwriters: Sean Hood, Daniel Giat
Producers: Danny Lerner, Les Weldon, Boaz Davidson, Renny Harlin
Executive producers: Avi Lerner, Trevor Short, John Thompson
Director of photography: Sam McCurdy
Production designer: Luca Tranchino
Costume designer: Sonu Mishra
Editor: Vincent Tabaillon
Music: Tuomas Kantelinen
PG-13, 98 minutes
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