Renny Harlin has fallen on hard times within his storied directorial career. A visually innovative filmmaker with a knack for mounting large-scale action set-pieces, most of his features in the late-1980s and throughout the '90s impressed if for no other reason than through the nervy style he brought to them. 1988's "A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master," 1990's "Die Hard 2: Die Harder," 1993's "Cliffhanger," 1996's "The Long Kiss Goodnight," 1999's "Deep Blue Sea
"for a time, Harlin was one of the go-to talents of the genre. How that guy became the one responsible for 2006's low-rent, misogynistic "The Covenant
" and the rickety, dime-a-dozen "The Legend of Hercules" is not so much a testament of his loss in talent as it is his rotten luck while getting eaten up by a mid-level studio system no longer willing to give him his pick of scripts following several box-office disappointments. When he forgoes the paychecks for more adventurous, lower-budgeted projects, he is still capable of exhibiting inspiration, as was the case with 2013's under-the-radar found-footage horror film "Devil's Pass
." When he endeavors upon a work-for-hire gig, the results can go radically south.
The slack, sanitized artistic license with which screenwriters Sean Hood (2011's "Conan the Barbarian
"), Daniel Giat and Giulio Steve take in regard to "The Legend of Hercules" renders it barely related at all to the Greek mythology of the character. Instead, Harlin has clearly been instructed to make a derivative amalgamation of everything from 2000's "Gladiator
," to 2004's "Troy
," to 2007's "300
," to 2011's "Immortals
" (just to name a few) without the opportunity to give it a unique identity of its own. There isn't a scene here that isn't dopey and strictly by-the-numbers, just as there is scarcely a scene that doesn't resemble what one would expect from a "Medieval Times" dinner theater. This is not to say that the green screen work isn't mostly competent from a technical standpoint, but effects that narrowly make the grade do not a good movie make. On every level, "The Legend of Hercules" lives up to all that one fears about January film releases.
In Southern Greece, circa 1200 B.C., Queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) wants to put an end to the tyranny within her kingdom and across the land, agreeing to birth a son with Zeus for the sake of peace. Cue lots of writhing under sheets with an invisible godthat is, until her husband, the brutish King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins), catches her in the act. By then, the damage has been done, and nine months later Alcides is born. Twenty years later, Alcides (Kellan Lutz) is madly in love with Princess Hebe of Crete (Gaia Weiss)a fact not lost upon his stepfather when it is announced that Alcides' scheming older brother, Iphicles (Liam Garrigan), is to marry her instead. An attempt at escaping together ends in Hebe being returned to the kingdom against her wishes and Alcides being sold into slavery. Pit against dangerous components in arena-set fights to the death, Alcides' only hope in finding a way out of his situation and returning to Hebe is to survive. As he begins to discover the magnificent extent of his abilities as the offspring of a god, it is only a matter of time before he ultimately grows into his true name, the one his mother secretly gave him at birth: Hercules.
It is approximately two minutes into "The Legend of Hercules" when a character theatrically announces to another in battle, "Prepare to die!" Not five minutes later, King Amphitryon is screaming up at the sky, arms raised, as the rain pours down around him, not aware that over three thousand years later this soapy melodramatic ploy will be repeated ad nausea in a curious form of art called cinema. Not content to think for itself, "The Legend of Hercules" simply borrows wholesale from other movies for the duration. The use of slow motion followed by abrupt speed-ups as swords are swung and Hercules leaps in the air at adversaries (this happens, no joke, between ten and twenty times during the film's 99-minute running time) is such a rehashed, overdone move it deserves to never be employed again. The actors, led by a constantly shirtless Kellan Lutz (2012's "Breaking Dawn Part 2
"), are at the mercy of some head-scratchingly terrible dialogue that makes them sound like they're speaking Shakespeare by way of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." At one point, Hercules describes himself as "the self-proclaimed son of Zeus." At another, Iphicles spitefully tells himand this really makes no sense if one stops to think about it"I wish you countless victories on the battlefield, because if you return here, I'll kill you." Say what? "Out of my way, woman!" is also uttered, and no, this is not meant to be a comedy. For reasons unknown, every one of Hercules' family members speaks with a British accent while he speaks as if he's spent his childhood years at a boarding school in Marina Del Rey. It's just as well.
As shoulder-shrugging as "The Legend of Hercules" is, there is admittedly room for it to have been even worse. Disregarding the plodding, pointless, brightness-strangling 3D of its big-screen exhibition, the film has a slick aesthetic sheen, a few sweeping, solidly orchestrated camera setups, and verges into camp frequently enough that sitting through it doesn't become too punishing. Still, what could Renny Harlin have been thinking to lower himself to such rote, vanilla, antiseptic material? Why does he have trouble concocting anything close to tension or excitement? Why is there not a solitary reason provided for why we should care about a ragtag ensemble of one-note characters who are terminally conflicted but empty, bar none, in their souls? And why, oh, why is there so much cottonwood fluff floating through every other shot that it threatens to entirely consume the performers? "The Legend of Hercules" is bumbling tripe, the rooting interest it works up in the viewer accurately equating to the makers' interest in staying true to the classic mythology upon which the story based. There have been boxes of hair smarter than this movie.