Monday, January 13, 2014

The Legend of Hercules

Review by Pete Roche

Thracian King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins) is a power-mad overlord who conquers neighboring Grecian provinces simply because he can.  Tired of her husband’s hubris, Queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) prays to goddess Hera for an end to the king’s warring ways and an era of peace for her people.  Hera arranges for Alcmene to conceive the demigod child of Zeus and—vis-à-vis a ghoulish-looking proxy—assures her the boy will one day overthrow the king and restore order.

Amphitryon detests his stepson from birth.  Convinced he’s been cuckholded by a mortal man, he alienates Alcmene and promises to bequeath his kingdom to his elder son, Iphicles (Liam Garrigan). 

Twenty years on, Iphicles (Liam Garrigan) and Hercules (TWILIGHT’s Kellan Lutz) are siblings in a house divided.  To garner favor with his father, weasely, conniving Iphicles takes credit for Hercules’ good deeds and heroic feats, including the defeat of the Namean Lion.  The brothers also compete for the hand of comely Cretan princess Hebe (Gaia Weiss).  Hercules and Hebe are hot for one another and frequently wander off to swim at a remote waterfall, but manipulative Amphitryon arranges for Iphicles to wed Hebe, inherit the throne, and perpetuate his prickly rule. 

Needless to say, the young lovers are pissed.  Hebe flees the city and Hercules follows, valiantly fighting off his stepfather’s soldiers until he’s overwhelmed and apprehended at the pond hangout.  Hoping to permanently rid himself of his stubborn half-son, annoyed Amphitryon dispatches Hercules on a far-away military campaign with young general Satiris (Liam McIntyre).

“I pray you have many victories,” hisses Iphicles.  “For if you return I shall kill you!”

Hercules blows off his brother and begrudgingly accepts the assignment, venturing across the desert on horseback.  Satiris finds it peculiar they’ve been sent away with a fraction of their usual regiment and frets over their vulnerability.  He knows Amphitryon isn’t pleased with Hercules, but neither he nor the brawny prince suspect the duplicitous king has orchestrated their end.  Ambushed in a cave, their numbers decimated, brave Hercules and Satiris are captured and sold into slavery. 

Their master pits them in gladiatorial death-matches and is dazzled by Hercules’ strength, which hasn’t even reached its full potential.  An early battle has Hercules and Satiris sparring with two ugly adversaries while precariously perched on a series of craggy columns.  Even if the blow from an enemy’s sword or spear tip doesn’t kill them, the fall most certainly will.     

In a bid for freedom, Hercules talks Lucius into entering them in a high-stakes arena contest back in Greece.  Things don’t go as neatly as planned, but—after taking on six seasoned combatants by himself—all the scheming and scrapping pays off:  Hercules and Satiris are liberated in their old neighborhood, where they clandestinely rebel against Amphitryon’s police tactics like Greco-Roman incarnations of Robin Hood and Little John.    
The king isn’t pleased Hercules still lives, and even is less tickled to learn his prodigal stepson has rallied the common folk against his stranglehold.  Iphicles insists on marrying Hebe, despite the maiden’s protest, so Hercules must act fast and accept his demigod ancestry if he’s to thwart both personal and political disaster.

But we’ve already lost interest by the time Hercules embraces his destiny and is blessed with super-strength.  When the muscle-bound hero stages an eleventh-hour escape and bullwhips a small army with chains, we wince at how corny everything looks and feels instead of reveling in Hercules’ triumph.  Even without a rewrite, the final showdown between Lutz’s hero and Adkin’s evil king could have been much more, given Harlin’s knack for over-the-top action and Adkin’s background in martial arts.  Instead, we’re given another rote “You stab, I parry” duel with a couple slow-motion somersaults and table-flips thrown for added measure. 

Without having earned our emotional investment in these people or their problems, Harlin’s uber-cool camera freezes and “bullet-time” fisticuffs amount to a whole lot visual noise.   The 3D effects make airborne objects (spears, pollen, fog, and stars) really pop—but they can’t salvage the flat screenplay.   

Lutz’s wooden portrayal doesn’t help, but most of the blame lay with the anemic, unoriginal script.  Nearly everything in LEGEND OF HERCULES has been seen before.  The titular character’s quest co-opts the journeys depicted in superior sword-and-sandals swashbucklers like Zack Snyder’s 300 and Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR, which effectively jump-started the genre back in 2000.  Hercules’ reluctance to call upon his Olympic father is a rehash of Perseus’ inner conflict in both CLASH and WRATH OF THE TITANS, and what would otherwise be a throwaway boat scene showing a dozen glistening, bare-chested slaves rowing below decks instantly recalls BEN-HUR.  The heavy-handed allusions to the passion of Christ (“Father, I believe in you”) are also cumbersome. 

Moreover, the relationship between the embittered brothers played by Lutz and Garrigan echoes that of Thor and Loki in the recent Marvel films about the Asgardian thunder god.  Like Thor, Hercules is brash but happy-go-lucky, while steely-eyed Iphicles (like Loki) is a spoiled, Machiavellian careerist.   There’s even a physical resemblance between these guys and their THOR analogs (Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston), notwithstanding the haircuts.          

Fortunately, this LEGEND only lasts 90 minutes.  Disappointingly, it avoids Hercules more familiar feats of strength, such as his fabled “Twelve Labours.”  Beyond besting the lion, Hercules’ quibble here is with rotten humans instead of mythological monsters.  He doesn’t wrestle a hydra, choke-hold a boar, or grapple with the three-headed Cerebus—any of which might’ve livened things up.  Heck, even the mediocre remake of CLASH had giant scorpions, Medusa, and a Kraken. 

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is no Charlton Heston, but perhaps he will deliver the excitement Lutz couldn’t when his own HERCULES picture opens next summer.  With his oaken arms and talent for transforming two-dimensional cops and soldiers into larger-than-life action figures, Johnson might just own Hercules the same way Schwarzenegger personified CONAN THE BARBARIAN’s iconic heathen. 1 1/2 out of 4 stars.


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