THE LEGEND OF HERCULES

Oh, January. It’s like we don’t even need any other months when the first one can supply us with such strong contenders for the best of the year and the worst of the year. Guess which category The Legend of Hercules falls under. Hint: it’s not playing at Sundance. I know, it’s too early to be sure that this will fall on our list of the most awful movies of 2014, and we’ve got another Hercules movie out this summer from Brett Ratner, so you know it could actually get much worse. At least that competing blockbuster has The Rock as its lead, promising a charisma that Legend star Kellan Lutz just completely lacks. Not that more personality would have made this movie a lot better, but it could have used someone with more appeal than if they’d just cast an actual rock in the role of the demigod. This is supposed to be a legendary figure, after all.

Until this movie, Lutz was best known for being a regular in the Twilight movies. Those are movies I’ve seen and, I have no shame in saying, sometimes enjoyed. And yet I have absolutely no memory of his presence or character in that series. That’s how unimpressive he is as an actor. He kind of reminds me of Sam Worthington, only without the talent. In The Legend of Hercules, he’s occasionally part of a large battle scene, and whether he’s wearing a helmet or not doesn’t matter; he never stands out. Nor does anyone else, for that matter, except for one character: Zeus. Who plays this king of the Greek gods, who fathers the title character by sleeping with the mortal mother? A wind machine, basically, and it’s genuinely the best performance in the movie.

I can’t attest to being any sort of expert in mythology, so I’m not sure how much of this take on Hercules/Heracles is faithful to the ancient stories. I tried to refresh my familiarity with the actual myths afterward and got rather confused about certain characters (isn’t Hebe supposed to be a goddess?) before realizing that this movie isn’t even worth the effort. A movie should be taken as what it is, anyway, and rarely anything more. This one is simply about a young man (well, half man, half immortal) who loves a young woman (that would be Hebe, played by the suitably named newcomer Gaia Weiss), who is promised to his older, heir-to-the-throne brother (Iphicles, played by Liam Garrigan). This young “man” is also very much disliked by his wicked step-father (King Amphitryon, played by Scott Adkins) for clearly being not of his loins, and so is sent into a planned ambush as a way of eliminating him.

Of course, Hercules survives. He’s sold into slavery, becomes a champion gladiator and, once freed through a wager, becomes a hero to a people who hate their ruler for whatever reason (is it taxes? I think it’s taxes. This is Robin Hood, right? — never mind that at the start of the movie he saved countless soldiers from combat by putting up his own life for a simple decisive duel). The demigod just wants revenge against his own family members, the males specifically, and to be reunited with Hebe. It’s altogether familiar to anyone who has seen at least one sword-and-sandal movie (probably Gladiator). What it doesn’t have, though, is mythological creatures outside of the invisible, gusty, literal-sex-god Zeus. And technically, if we must count it, the Nemean lion, which here is not really explained enough for us to not just think it’s a terribly animated CGI regular lion that is somehow impervious to spears.

I’d have been fine with bad CGI monsters. In fact, I went into The Legend of Hercules knowing it wouldn’t be great — no Hercules movie is, and that’s a tradition we’re used to and have accepted — but presuming there would at least be some stupidly entertaining creatures. A hydra, perhaps. Maybe they were going for a less fantastical version of the myths (too late when you’ve got goddesses possessing and then gods impregnating human women) or maybe they’re hoping for sequels and saved the more unearthly labors and adventures for later. But if there’s no magic in the performances and no imagination to the story (or how it’s told), what is there for us to enjoy? Why was this movie made at all? Fight sequences?

Given that the main villain role is filled by someone known for martial arts (Adkins), the answer to that last question must be affirmative. And since there’s so much slow motion during the action sequences, we’re apparently meant to be appreciating them. But the battles and gladiatorial matches and one-on-one fights are choreographed so sloppily and are so uninspired in conception to begin with, their 300-style execution actually hurts the movie. Normally I would appreciate an action movie going for slow motion as a means of clarity and to highlight the gracefulness and artistry of the bodies in motion. Here, even the slowed down shots, particularly because of how they’re chopped up and edited when such moments should always be played uncut, are disorienting.

It’s also some of the most blatantly self-censoring action in terms of its violence being tailor made for the PG-13 rating. Again, the slow motion only makes it worse by allowing us to be very conscious of when the movie cuts to a shot of a soldier or gladiator’s back just as Hercules’s sword or spear is about to penetrate their body. It wouldn’t look any more obvious if they’d just put black bars over these parts. Director Renny Harlin has clearly come a long way since initially receiving an NC-17 rating for Cliffhanger on account of how violent the death scenes were.

A Hercules movie, or really any movie of this genre, should be silly or it should be dark and gritty. It can even be both. The Legend of Hercules is neither. It’s not fun, it’s not intense or bloody, it’s not romantic or exciting, and neither the story nor the characters are developed fully enough to care about them. When main characters are killed, there’s no emotional response earned, and when justice is achieved, no satisfaction. If this were truly the stuff of legend, that word would have the opposite meaning of what it’s supposed to. And if this were really the story of Hercules or the best way of telling his tales, he’d have been forgotten thousands of years ago.

The Upside: The 3D, as atrocious as it is (particularly in the final shot of the night sky, the applied depth of which is ridiculously incorrect) at least kept making me feel like I was watching a movie and not a made-for-cable feature.

The Downside: Pretty much everything, but most importantly: Kellan Lutz is an empty shell of a movie star who can’t carry a line of dialogue let alone a whole film; the action is as boring as it is confusing; Rade Serbedzija has somehow made Taken 2 not be his worst movie ever; and Harlin has hit a new low, as well — yes, I’d rather watch Cutthroat Island.

On The Side: Brett Ratner and The Rock’s take on Hercules, which hopefully does something more interesting with the mythological hero, opens theatrically on July 25th.

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