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Legend of Hercules, The
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by Brett Gallman

2 stars

Full disclosure: I'm a mark for Renny Harlin. Always have been since he arrived from his native Finland to blaze a swath through Hollywood like some sort of Norse god with a flowing mane and a rakish charm that translated into a handful of devil-may-care blockbusters. I'd call him the Finnish Michael Bay if Bay weren't still cutting his teeth on commercials while Harlin was unleashing a torrent of entertaining destruction during the early 90s. So it's kind of a bummer that those halcyon days are long gone, a smoky memory trailing the wake of some burned bridges and poor decisions, none of which may have been poorer than the decision to helm "The Legend of Hercules," a film that has little use for its director's panache.

Because this is 2014, this is an origin story (which would no doubt set up a trilogy if it were financially successful), which isn't an altogether bad thing if you know that Greek mythology often served as ancient soap operas, with the familial conflicts especially proving to be bonkers. However, again, because this is 2014, where familiar names are more important than their actual stories,
"The Legend of Hercules" barely resembles the original myth and reconfigures its hero's journey as a cookie-cutter "Gladiator" knock-off.

Hercules is born from a union between Zeus and a mortal woman, Queen Alcmene (Roxanne Mckee), who appeals to Hera (who quite disliked Hercules in the actual myth) and agrees to be knocked up as an act of vengeance against her estranged, war-mongering husband, King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins). The king suspects that the child is not his own and treats him accordingly throughout his life, where he's forced to play second-fiddle to older brother Iphicles (Liam Garrigan). These two wind up fighting over a princess (Gaia Weiss), a transgression that sets a sinister plot in motion that ultimately ends with Hercules shipped off to war and set up for death.

Only he survives, and, while traditional myth dictates that Hercules endured twelve labors involving all sorts of mystical shit (like magical girdles and nine-headed hydra), our dopey demigod gets to wrestle with a digital lion and become a pit-fighting slave. See, because this is 2014, this is the stripped down, grim-n-gritty take on Hercules, so there's no room for fantasy elements in a story that begins with a god implanting his seed into a lady. The not-so-immaculate conception scene is one of the first clues that "The Legend of Hercules" is woefully uncommitted to the myth, as we don't actually see Zeus; instead, he's a mystical, grunting wind that blows through Alcmene's room, so it's all billowing sheets and guttural noises, like a cross between a Dior commercial and bestiality porn.

From there, things don't exactly improve, but that doesn't mean it's no less amusing. Not only is "The Legend of Hercules" a regurgitation of the exiled-hero-returns-to-kick-ass tale, but it also goes New Testament on your ass by imagining Hercules--Kellan Lutz's Hercules--as a Christ figure who inexplicably returns to his native land as a savior. This isn't just a slight against Lutz, who looks as if he could transform into a CGI werewolf at any moment without us really noticing much of a difference, but against the script as well, which barely reveals why the locals have such an affection for him outside of his ability to beat the shit out of six gladiators at once. Besides being complete dickheads, his dad and brother actually seem to run a tight ship so far as conquering and pillaging neighboring kingdoms goes.

Anyway, it's all manufactured destiny stuff (by far the laziest crutch that filmmakers have come to rely on lately) that adheres to a ruthlessly mechanical script: of course Hercules initially refuses his Father's call, of course Hera begs him to do otherwise, of course he gets chained up in a Jesus Christ Pose before finally appealing to Zeus to help him smite his enemies. It's made for people who think the New Testament could have used a little more lightning-fuelled ass-kicking.

Harlin can still accomplish that much--he can still shoot a decent action sequence, at least in the sense that the various brawls here are more coherent than most of their counterparts. There's certainly a slickness to them that recalls his earlier work, though he's beholden to the choppy, speed-ramped rhythms that feel like an obligatory echo of "300," as if this weren't derivative enough already. Between the pantomime and the film's grounded approach, I'm not sure why anyone thought it was a good idea to hire a visual stylist like Harlin and simply stick a Zack Snyder Instagram Filter on his lens.

Of course, Harlin has always straddled the line between auteur and studio hired gun, and he's at his most mercenary here. Unfortunately, he's often only been as good as the resources afforded him, and Avi Lerner and crew seemingly gave him the leftover scraps from their Expendables budget. One never shakes the feeling that "The Legend of Hercules" is a direct-to-video film that conned its way onto the big screen to unflattering effect: alternating between barely-dressed Eastern European locales and uninspired digital canvasses, the film is too dry for its own good, and Harlin only has a pretty game Scott Atkins at his disposal.

Otherwise, the vistas are filled with absolute bores, with Lutz especially proving to be unready for a leading role whenever he's asked to be anything but a beefcake mannequin. Which is just as well, since, outside of a few inventive sequences (one of the gladiator battles is a tag-team bout perched on precipitous platforms), he's only there to enter the Zeus cheat code and yield to a CGI stunt double that scatters a horde of CGI enemies like so much digital confetti.

It's no wonder that whatever humanity may be found in this grounded approach is but a cursory footnote to all of the laughably antiseptic bloodshed (thanks, PG-13 rating!); it'd be forgivable if the tumult were worthwhile, but "The Legend of Hercules" is only likely to serve as a GIF factory for Lutz-related Tumblrs. Beyond that, it offers nothing that hasn't been done more impressively a dozen times before.

If there's a tortured figure to be found here, it must be Harlin, who has been forsaken and condemned to such hack work; oddly enough, his take will butt heads with another Hercules film later this year, one that will find Dwayne Johnson in the lead, directed by Brett Ratner, another mercenary that may have once been considered "a poor man's Renny Harlin." Or, as fellow critic Danny Bowes more eloquently put it on Twitter, "a destitute man on his way to debtor's prison Harlin."

Either way, someone needs to break Harlin out of director's jail. I'd even settle for him having a shot at "Expendables 4" at this point--Avi Lerner owes him that much after this.

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originally posted: 01/16/14 13:35:10
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User Comments

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  10-Jan-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 29-Apr-2014


  DVD: 29-Apr-2014

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