Let’s face it, no one had anything approaching excitement for The Legend of Hercules. Unless you walked in mistakenly thinking this was the big-budget version starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (that one’s headed for the summer), there seemed little chance of being drastically disappointed by a film advertised like a SyFy Original that had somehow slipped off cable and into the theater.
It’s true that Renny Harlin’s version of the Greek legend offers nothing in the way of surprise, but even by such shallow expectations it’s rather frustrating; instead of going for campy schlock, Harlin and company embrace rote, self-serious swashbuckling. This isn’t even a bad movie you can feel good about, and in place of an oiled-up, monosyllabic Hercules you couldn’t shove through a barn door, we get sullen Kellan Lutz, who looks like he just wants to take off his toga and join a boy band.
The story—hammered together by Harlin and four other writers—has less to do with the old myths than it does medieval action pics like Gladiator, 300 and Braveheart. Zeus, that philandering king of the Greek Gods, still gets up to illicit hanky-panky with Earth woman Alcmene (Roxanne Hall), but most of the fantasy is dispersed in favor of a more mortal Hercules. A generic warrior shorn of his marvelous 12 Labors, this version of the character is closer to a muscle-bound Cinderella, scorned by his villainous stepfather, King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins) and jealous stepbrother Iphicles (Liam Garrigan). When he’s banished to war and ends up fighting in the gladiator arenas of Sicily, the only thing that keeps the buff berserker going are thoughts of his lady love, Hebe of Crete (Gaia Weiss), now betrothed to Iphicles unless Herc can crash the wedding.
Hectic battle sequences edited with all the patient meditation of a Doritos commercial collide with heroic speeches as dry and coarse as the sand scattered sets. Any sense of cultural curiosity over the mythology and psychology of Hercules is tossed aside. The script never seems sure of that fabled strength either, and so sometimes Lutz’s Herc has it, sometimes he doesn’t, depending on the requirements of the moment. A good monster or two wouldn’t have gone amiss, but there’s no sign of the serpentine Hydra, three-headed hound Cereberus, or the carnivorous Mares of Thrace. The best this production can manage is a mangy, computer-generated Nemean Lion, whose shabbiness makes one nostalgic for Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting a man in a bear suit in Hercules in New York.
The acting is all over the place, but few of these faces have been chosen for their seamless craft. Lutz is here because he’s easy on the eyes and wears the skimpy costuming well; his lack of experience coupled with the script’s flat interpretation of Hercules sculpt a vacancy that cannot be overlooked. Adkins, whose martial-arts born acting career has become one of the bright spots of modern DTV filmmaking, is too young to play the evil king but he struggles on anyway, grinning like a fiend and loving every minute of it. Weiss and Hall are overlooked in the drama, mostly relegated to participating in scenes considered ‘sexy’, while Liam McIntyre does add some much-needed humanity as Hercules’ brother-in-arms Sotiris.
The clunky nature of the set design and costumes, the arbitrary and frantic action scenes, and painfully artificial visual effects mark the film as a low-budget affair, but this isn’t why it fails. All of those attributes, including a cast of British and American faces playing ancient Greeks, call back to the genre of Peplum; Italian sword-and-sandal movies that include the Hercules series that made Steve Reeves a star. No more convincing dramatically or stylistically than Legend of Hercules, many of the peplum pictures had a sense of corny fun inspired by the bigger budget counterparts they were ripping off. Harlin’s Hercules omits that sense of zaniness and playful adventure, perhaps because it doesn’t have the privilege of fresh inspiration from the likes of Jason and the Argonauts and Ben Hur, or immediate spurring from pulp blockbusters like Superman, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as Lou Ferrigno’s 1983 Hercules had.
If our bad movies are only as strong as our good ones, Hercules' utter mediocrity and lack of even memorable horribleness can be traced back to the meager imagination of the films it’s trying to ape, among them stilted adventures like Troy, King Arthur and the aforementioned 300. Oddly enough, the Renny Harlin who directed over-the-top good times like Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Good Night and Deep Blue Sea feels like the perfect candidate for a camp-soaked, rip-roaring Greek myth writ large. Sadly, the last decade or so has been a bit of a come-down for Harlin, who ends up as little more than a hired gun here, hastily copying someone else’s style to diminishing effect. Now that’s a tragedy worthy of the Greeks.
Legend of Hercules score on Rotten Tomatoes: 4% fresh