Repeatedly this week I've had to defend my choice to see Renny Harlin's The Legend of Hercules to my friends and colleagues in the critic community. To some I shrugged it off with the lame excuse, "I have to review it." But the truth was that despite it's worrisome trailer where the headlining star never speaks on camera and release date in the dumping ground that is January, I was hoping this mythic action flick would be a diamond in the rough. As a fan of his past features like the wild but fun Cutthroat Island, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Deep Blue Sea, I was rooting for Harlin's comeback. But The Legend of Hercules completely dashed my hopes of that.
Written by Harlin, Daniel Giat, Sean Hood and Giulio Steve, The Legend of Hercules serves as an origin story for the Greek hero who is said to be part man, part god. Here his mother is the queen of a tyrannical king. A devout follower of the gods, she prays to Hera for an end to her husband's warmongering, bringing on a night with Zeus and a baby boy destined to overthrow his vile adoptive father. But Hercules does not know of his demi-divinity. At first, his rebellion is spurred by his love of a princess promised to his older, evil brother. To keep Hercules out of the way, the king sends him away to war and certain death. But instead of dying he is reborn as the son of Zeus and hero of the people.
The quartet of screenwriters not only pulls from the Hercules myth, but also folds in some elements from Robin Hood and biblical tales like that of Samson and Jesus. Yet for all these larger than life influences, they completely fail at weaving together a compelling story, instead creating a meandering epic without any sense of escalation. Scenes meant to be dramatic are undercut by laughably bad dialogue. For instance, when Hercules is asked if he has taken the "maidenhead" (virginity) of the princess, the 20-year-old demigod stares down his sneering brother and disregards the established faux-ancient diction, declaring, "It's none of your business!" That's the level this movie operates on, where Hercules quotes Salt 'N Pepa.
With a script this abysmal, the cast has a major obstacle to overcome, and few do. Leading the cast as Hercules is Twilight's Kellan Lutz, who is suitably brawny but painfully lacking in the kind of charm that might have saved this dud. He really only has two modes in this movie: steeling stone face and totally over-the-top. In action sequences, he is acting his face off, either bulging out his eyes while flexing his beefcake bod or else flashing a big, shit-eating grin. Despite all the skin he flaunts throughout, the film lacks sex appeal as his romance with Princess Hebe (Gaia Weiss) falls flaccid. The two share no chemistry, and worse yet, they look like they could be brother and sister with their blonde locks and pouty lips.
Playing Hercules's puny and jealous brother, Liam Garrigan follows Lutz in this wooden to overwrought performance style. Thankfully more enaging turns are given by Scott Adkins and Liam McIntyre. As the cruel king Amphitryon, Adkins is almost campy in his growls and explosions of violence. But to his credit it's fun to watch. As for McIntyre, his is the only performance that holds any depth or subtlety. Playing Hercules's reluctant ally, he actually gives this story some gravity and emotional life. Sadly, he's got a small supporting role that offers too little screentime.
With characters this poorly drawn, it's impossible for an audience to get involved in this story, which detracts from the action sequences' impact. While there are some imaginative elements laced in the fight choreography, these are ruined with nonsensical coverage and quick-cut editing that makes it a feat to even follow the action. The camera angles regularly disregard the 180-degree rule making for confusing cuts and jarring geography. This quick-cut method is applied throughout, which does give the story a sense of urgency. However, this urgency is by no means reflected in the plot. Plus, this rushed pace results in a profoundly ugly edit.
In the end, I strain to think of things I enjoyed in The Legend of Hercules. I'm profoundly disappointed in Harlin. Given $70 million and a chance to reclaim his spot as a top action-helmer, he gave us this a mess of film that's awful, yet not so spectacularly bad that it'd entertain in that way. (Though Hercules's fight scene with a clearly CGI lion is pretty funny, albeit unintentionally.) This movie lacks the energy that I'd typically associate with Harlin, and nothing about it feels fresh or especially thrilling. Really in a day and age where we're getting action movies as smart and satisfying as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, it's shocking that tent poles this tedious can even get green lit.