Renny Harlin’s “The Legend of Hercules” doesn’t rely a great deal on the actual legend of Hercules. This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, since the original version of the story wouldn’t much appeal to the film’s target demographic, which I strongly suspect to be the exact same eighteen-to-forty-nine-year-olds that devoured all four seasons of the Starz channel’s “Spartacus” TV series. The thing is, I seriously doubt this audience will find this new version appealing, since its PG-13 rating guarantees a drastic reduction of the violence and sexuality they’ve become accustomed to. Truth be told, I don’t think any audience at all is likely to find this movie appealing – save, possibly, for the Twihards with serious crushes on Kellan Lutz, who played the vampire Emmett Cullen in all five “Twilight” films.
It’s not that it’s a technically incompetent film, or that it’s offensive or juvenile or over the top. It’s just that it has absolutely no ambition to be anything more than what it is. It goes through the motions and plays it safe, telling a story equally as ancient as its Ancient Greece setting. All too often, visuals are allowed to overshadow what little story there is (this may account for an ending that seems awkwardly hurried). As nice as they are to look at – the set and costume designs are convincing, the special effects are stunning, and the process of 3D is surprisingly effective – they can only be regarded superficially, never once coming off as anything that could actually advance the plot. This is doubly true of the several fight sequences, during which Harlin repeatedly tips his hat to the slow motion excesses of Paul W.S. Anderson.
Perhaps the missing ingredient was a sense that the filmmakers were having fun with the material. With a hackneyed plot and a large grouping of male actors that appear to have been imported from the Island of Bulging Pectorals, you’d think someone would have taken the opportunity to satirize or pay homage to the Sword and Sandal genre, as was done with entertaining efforts like “300,” “Immortals,” the remake of “Clash of the Titans,” and its sequel. But no; the material is taken seriously. Watching Lutz, one wonders if his less-than-memorable performance as Hercules was the result of him being directed in earnest. I’ll bet, if given the chance, he could have let loose and heightened his character to the point of making him ... not necessarily believable, but certainly more engaging.
The basic scenario of the god Zeus fathering Hercules with the mortal woman Alcmene remains unchanged. The conception, however, and just about everything else is transformed into a by-the-numbers political and romantic drama. We do get to see the conception, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s actually kind of clever; rather than ravage Alcmene while disguised as her husband, as was the case in the original legend, Zeus instead remains invisible, bathing Alcmene in a flood of orgasmic lightning flashes while winds whip the gossamer bed curtains. Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) is now a queen who strikes a bargain with the gods, agreeing to bear Zeus’ son with the hope that he will someday end the reign of her tyrannical, warmongering husband, King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins).
Upon the baby’s birth, the jealous and domineering Amphitryon instinctively knows that he isn’t the father. He declares that the boy be named Alcides, despite the fact that Hercules had already been chosen for him by higher powers. He also swears that his own son, Iphicles, will someday succeed him as king. Flash forward twenty years. Prince Hercules (Lutz) – who doesn’t yet know that Hercules is his real name, nor that Amphitryon is only his stepfather – has fallen in love with Princess Hebe (Gaia Weiss), whose father rules Crete. Unfortunately, she’s betrothed to Iphicles (Liam Garrigan), who’s sniveling and power hungry. After entering battle and being sold into slavery, Hercules must fight in gladiator match after gladiator match, working his way back to his love, and to a kingdom that’s rightfully his.
Strange, that in this version of the story Hercules doesn’t gain his trademark superhuman strength until he learns to believe in the gods – or, more specifically, in his real father, Zeus. Stranger still, that we only get one scene in which he gets to show off his newfound strength, when he swings gigantic blocks of stone around via chains shackled to his wrists. All other scenes show him as nothing more than a really skilled fighter. In one scene, a lightning bolt descends from a swirl of heavy gray clouds and infuses the blade of Hercules’ sword with a glowing blue whip-like tendril capable to decimating legions of soldiers in seconds. This isn’t a show of his strength, but of his father’s divine powers. Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of Hercules’ existence? To be perfectly honest, the entirety of “The Legend of Hercules” begs the exact same question.