Review: 'The Legend of Hercules'

Though it dabbles in the speed-ramped, pectoral worship of Zack Snyder's sword and sandals softcore “300,” it would be wrong to call director Renny Harlin's “Legend of Hercules” a crass imitator. A cash in, sure. But in an effort to strip the Greek myth of any “silliness” —displays of uber-strength and the man-on-monster beatdowns one might expect from the mythical guy who bested Eurystheus' Twelve Labours — writers Sean Hood and Daniel Giat turn ol' Herc into Beefcake Jesus (actor Kellan Lutz), a savior of the people challenged by his own godliness. “Legend of Hercules” is a companion piece to “The Bible” mini-series in both tone and scope; sporadic action breaks up endless amounts of epic speak gobbledygook, the whole thing packaged with CG surroundings that wouldn't pass as Lord of the Rings animatics. When Hercules finally embraces his heritage, finally Hulks out with a lightning sword, the welcome absurdity is too little too late. “I, Claudius” has bigger thrills then this would-be tentpole.

“The Legend of Hercules” invests in drama that it clearly has no interest in exploring. A political threat to his father, King Amphitryon (the mighty Scott Adkins), and just too damn heart-throbby for his older brother, Iphicles (Liam Garrigan) to bear, Hercules is sentenced to life on the front lines, the fastest way to a stint in the gladiator arena — and the grave. But Hercules is driven to stay alive, in hopes of returning to his blonde gal pal Hebe (Gaia Weiss), slaying his horny bro, and freeing the background extras from a run time over 90 minutes.

Before he owns the mantle of “Zeus' Son,” Hercules is a warrior of unimaginable force. After, he remains infallible, with the added bonus of picking up rocks and hurling them at bad guys. It might not seem so stagnant if Lutz could turn Hercules into anything beyond a anthropomorphic sack of t-bone steaks. In “Legend,” he's a cross between Rocky Horror and Weird Al's spoof of Kurt Cobain; it's edge-of-your-seat entertainment waiting to see if marbles spill out of Lutz's mouth. The actor can hold while duking it out with his 'roided-out opponents (enhanced by a lions roar that bellows out of Hercules' mouth whenever he screams), but “Legend” is a movie of walk-and-talks and Lutz's jaw muscle isn't ripped enough to do the heavy-lifting.

“Legend of Hercules” lacks that pillar of gravitas, a casting choice like Liam Neeson in “Clash of the Titans or John Hurt in “Immortals” designed to chew up scenery when the picture can't find the money to stuff in another action set piece. Hollywood's favorite Euro-Russian, Rade Serbedzija, appears briefly as Hercules' guidance counselor Chiron, a disposable, exposition-barfing side player who the writers can't even throw a delicious monologue or two despite the film's dialogue requirements. To kill time, “Legend” doughnuts around the parking lot, returning over and over to Amphitryon and Iphicles empty threats and Hercules wake-up-already journey to understanding. There's no reason Herclues shouldn't understand that he's not a demigod, but if he just won't have it, then hey, that's a dramatic thrust. Adkins and Garrigan are staple villains for Herc to pursue, adding to the film's been-there-done-that stench.

Surprisingly, Harlin, who has been forced to sink his teeth into TV and direct-to-DVD actioners after a string of bombs, makes the most of his meager budget and scrapbooked script. The guy has an eye for bombastic, set-driven action, on full display when Hercules finally gets around to encountering his father. Cutting through 21st century stylistic tropes (which feel like demands to be worked around), Harlin opens up the fight scenes, zips to the right angles at the right moments, and delivers actual brutality. Lutz and Adkins don't need to be hidden by shaky cam and hyper-editing; they come alive with the choreography. Harlin takes the same approach with the fantastical elements; in one moment, Hercules is weaponized with stone pillars on chains, bashing soldiers to thunderous accompaniment. While the art of action filmmaking depreciates, Harlin remains steadfast in his classicism, even if the movie doesn't have the foundation to support him. Someone throw this guy “Thor 3”

Judging from the production design, costumes, and post-production crafts, “Legend of Hercules” didn't have the pockets to be ambitious. Talk of quarreling armies and godly interference are undermined by the suffocating scale (somehow, half-baked CG backgrounds still don't a candle to good ol' fashioned matte paintings). There's nothing mythic about this “Hercules.” The filmmaking seems all too aware of that fact.

SCORE: 3.9 / 10