The Legend of Hercules begins in Ancient Greece 1200 B.C., as the power-hungry warrior Amphitryon (Scott Adkins) leads his army to victory and conquers the land. When Amphitryon’s wife Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) pleads to the gods to free the kingdom from her husband’s tyrannical rule, her prayer is answered by the goddess Hera – who, through a human vessel, informs Alcmene that she will bear the son of Zeus: a demigod named Hercules, destined to restore peace to Greece. Twenty years later, a fully-grown Hercules (Kellan Lutz) is blissfully unaware of either his true name or heritage, preferring to spend his days either fighting or spending time with his forbidden lover Hebe (Gaia Weiss), the Princess of Crete.
However, when Hebe is promised to Hercules’ half-brother Iphicles (Liam Garrigan), Herc and Hebe make a failed attempt to run away together, resulting in the son of Zeus being exiled and, soon thereafter, sold into slavery. Can the young mythical hero rescue the woman he loves, while also embracing his destiny as the savior of his time?
With a working title of Hercules 3D – which eventually changed to Hercules: The Legend Begins and finally Legend of Hercules – and B-movie specialist director Renny Harlin (The Long Kiss Goodnight, Deep Blue Sea) at the helm, you might’ve expected this post-300 exploration of the ancient mythical Greek hero’s origins to embrace its own campiness, if nothing else. Unfortunately, Harlin and his cast play everything stone-faced, giving rise to a cheap-looking swords and sandals fantasy/adventure that is mostly a joyless slog to sit through – save for the few moments where the film delivers some delicious cheesy melodrama and 3D gimmickry.Part of the blame lies with the script credited to Daniel Giat (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) and Sean Hood (Conan the Barbarian (2011)), which offers a flimsy narrative and thinly-sketched characters, at best. There are times when the film briefly teases a deeper examination of the mythological figures’ psychology – like how Iphicles’ deeply-rooted insecurities and jealousy of his brother warp his mind or how Hercules’ selfishness might come at a heavy price to the kingdom. However, whether it’s more the fault of the screenwriters or editor Vincent Tabaillon (Now You See Me), Legend of Hercules sprints through the rare moments of character development and clunkily moves between plot beats with little rhyme nor reason.
Let me put it this way – when you find yourself wishing that the mythological characters were as complex as those found in Wrath of the Titans (or the story as coherent as that featured in Conan the Barbarian), then you know you’re in a bad place.
Kellan Lutz’s physical appearance as the beefcake Hercules favors the Hollywood overly-sculpted look instead of naturalism, but his performance is neither equally over-the-top nor impressive by comparison. Lutz does show promise when asked to act headstrong or portray Herc with a pronounced swagger, but his (and Harlin’s) idea of “heavy emoting” generally amounts to Lutz frowning and looking down at the ground. Maybe Lutz will prove to be far better at tongue in cheek masculinity in this summer’s The Expendables 3, but in Legend of Hercules his attempt to become an action star fails to clear the bar.
Scott Adkins has limited screen time, but his detestable Amphitryon is one of the film’s highlights, even in the scenes where he’s not swinging a sword about; that also goes for Liam Garrigan as the slimeball Prince Iphicles, despite his character being as paper-thin as antagonists come. Roxanne McKee and Gaia Weiss are saddled with extremely derivative female archetypes, but they make the most of what they’re given. Meanwhile, character actor Rade Serbedzija (Taken 2) is wasted as Queen Alcmene’s caring servant Chiron, and Liam McIntyre helps elevate the thinly-written Greek soldier Sotiris into a memorable sidekick for Hercules – though his role still feels like a step down, after his solid leading performance on Starz’ Spartacus TV series.
Speaking of Spartacus – Legend of Hercules, like the aforementioned Starz TV show, is largely composed of green screen backdrops and CGI-enhanced set pieces shot on sound stages. Somehow, though, the effects in Renny Harlin’s Hercules movie often look more amateurish and less polished than on Spartacus, even though the former project had a much larger $70 million budget at its disposal.
Likewise, the violence in Legend of Hercules is almost completely bloodless (both figuratively and literally), which hurts the film’s tone. Because the film was designed with 3D in mind, Harlin and cinematographer Sam McCurdy (Centurion) stage the fight/battle sequences with clean visual composition and go for the easy pop-out effect whenever possible (see: arrows flying at the audience, Hercules swinging his lightning sword/whip around). However, save for a handful of sequences, the 3D aspect doesn’t add much to the action and the necessary ticket price upgrade will only be worth it for those who always prefer the format (when available).
As a whole, Legend of Hercules feels like a glorified Syfy movie that lacks the cheekiness necessary to make the whole experience a so-bad-it’s-good B-movie viewing. Suffice it to say, Brett Ratner’s Hercules (starring Dwayne Johnson) won’t have a challenging hurdle to clear, when it attempts to claim the “Hercules film of the year” title this summer.
The Legend of Hercules runs 99 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense combat action and violence, and for some sensuality. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.