It’s hard to tell from where Renny Harlin and his collaborators stole the most shamelessly for “The Legend Of Hercules” – “Gladiator,” “300” or “Spartacus.”
Regardless, the film answers the defiant question “Are you not entertained?” (asked by Maximus in “Gladiator”) with a resounding “Not especially.”
The once-mighty Harlin, hovering in C-grade limbo after a lackluster horror sequel (“Exorcist: The Beginning”), a steroid-pumped “Die Hard” knockoff (“12 Rounds”) and a would-be prestige picture (“5 Days of War”), yields fully to the motion-cranked, bleach-bypassed aesthetic of the last decade-plus of sword and sandal films, offering an addition to the genre that opts for familiarity over originality, and momentum over meaning.
Kellan Lutz (“The Twilight Saga”) plays Hercules, a demigod birthed to Queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) by Zeus in order to bring peace to her warmongering husband Amphitryon’s (Scott Adkins) kingdom. Estranged from his father and reluctantly locked in competition with his older brother Iphicles (Liam Garrigan), Hercules grows up knowing nothing of his true birthright, instead focusing his efforts on winning the hand of Cretan princess Hebe (Gaia Weiss).
But after Amphitryon arranges for Iphicles to marry Hebe despite Hercules’ objections, the king sends Hercules to war with the expectation that the warrior will soon fall prey to the military forces of Egyptian warlord Tarak (Jonathon Schaech).
Instead, Hercules teams up with a disgruntled commander in Amphitryon’s army named Sotiris (Liam McIntyre), and the two men hatch a plan to return to Greece, overthrow the king and reunite with their loved ones – if they can survive the gladiatorial arenas, where they are pitted against the toughest and most fearless men from around the world.
Overstuffed with narrative and stylistic hallmarks from virtually every one of its sandal-clad predecessors, “The Legend of Hercules” is desperately short on new ideas, unless you count the actual legend of Hercules. Though the character’s mythic backstory provides a loose framework for his adventures, the only sorts of labors endured in the film are those by the audience, who are forced to slog through its cheap, mind-numbing set pieces and unimaginative hero’s journey.
That said, if there’s one unique quality that this film does possess, it’s the inexplicable ability to make every scene seem both massively important and incredibly rushed at the same time. “Hercules” is the sort of movie where in one scene, a man can discover that his wife has been murdered, and in the very next one, he’s smiling again; indeed, the drama is so briskly rendered, it actually makes one long for the overwrought fascism of “300,” much less the cartoonish self-seriousness of “Gladiator.”
As Hercules, Lutz unquestionably has the physique of a demigod, but the film offers little evidence that he possesses the substance to wrestle the character’s transformation from lovelorn exile to populist revolutionary. Where the “Twilight” series expertly utilized his undeniable physicality and goofy, earnest charm, Harlin’s film flirts with offering Lutz dramatic challenges – A loved one dies. Go! – but its machinelike momentum never offers an opportunity to showcase either his charisma or his (potential) acting chops.
That said, at least Lutz seems to be trying to create a character from whole cloth; by comparison, almost all of his co-stars are at best aping their predecessors – Gerard Butler‘s growling conqueror in “300,” Joaquin Phoenix‘s venal successor in “Gladiator,” etc. – without matching their performances.
Given the collective lack of originality here, one supposes the best anyone involved with “The Legend of Hercules” could hope for was to evoke something someone already liked, since the only marginally fun part of the film is trying to figure out what inspired it – or more likely, what it ripped off.
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