Sunday, April 27, 2014

Movie Review: The Legend of Hercules

Directed by Renny Harlin. 2014.

Let me say first that The Legend of Hercules is not a great, or good, movie. It is indeed a bad movie. It is not, however, worth only its 3% score on Rotten Tomatoes. A few factors explain the exceptionally negative reaction.

The first is that The Legend of Hercules really is a bad movie, and it's all too easy to pile onto a popular reaction. Second, LoH is a simple movie, and therefore invites the scorn of purported intellectuals. It's fun to feel superior, and a bad and simple movie is more of a lightning rod for self-righteous criticism than movies which are bad and complex, or perhaps are bad but polished. Finally, The Legend of Hercules falls into a form out of vogue in our culture, the pastiche. We today don't seem to like medleys, at least in film, rather we prefer clear and easy categories like the epic, serious drama, buddy-cop, and so on. This is not a preposterous preference, for all art needs some fundamental idea around which to turn, but a foolish consistency is not preferable to a clever fusion, or even an unsuccessful one. Michael Bay and Zack Snyder have consistent styles, not at all superior to Renny Harlin's hodgepodge of Gladiator, Spartacus, Troy, and 300. So how should we approach The Legend of Hercules?

As a simple, cheesy, crowd-pleaser, I humbly suggest. You want a love story? Check. Revenge? Check. Betrayal? Check. Gladiator fights? Check. Mythological miscellany? Check. Slo-motion stylization? Check. The only boxes not checked are the gratuitous gore and sex because the producers undoubtedly thought they'd make more money tricking teenagers into thinking that they'll see on the big screen what they watch on HBO. Psyche!

Yes, of course there's a lot wrong with The Legend of Hercules, but this movie is innocuously bad, not objectionably so. There's no offense in LoC's borrowing the 2000s-era style, 90s-era cheesiness, 80s-era camp, and the scale of the old sword-and-sandals epics. So we get a movie, and hero, that's part Gladiator, part Conan, part Samson. Sure, the writing, acting, sets, wardrobe, CGI, compositing, and sound design are all bad, but what do you want for a mere $70 million bucks?

What bothers me most about this movie is how little it uses the endless ancient sources for inspiration, especially given that film's hodgepodge style would have supported all manner of references. For example, Amphitryon walking in on his wife Alcmene and Zeus could have been quite comic, as could have been Iphicles, always one step behind, and indeed any of Hercules' canonical Twelve Labors. This movie in fact only draws on one, depicting the hero's battle with the Nemean lion as a random encounter encounter with an unlucky lion. They might not have had the budget to make many of the famous monsters, but they could have exercised some creativity and tried to bring some of the other stories to life.

The chief pleasure of the movie was noting the endless anachronisms, especially the Roman republican-era gladiatorial schools, amphitheaters, and battle tactics in in Bronze Age Greece and Sicily. There's also a puzzling statement when Hebe, Hercules' love interest, says that her mother is "now with the gods." Of course her mother is Hera, so that makes sense, but the movie portrays Hebe as mortal, so what's going on? There is also a reference to Satan, a character not only outside the Greek mythology but an anachronistic use of the Hebrew word which didn't mean "The Devil" as we mean today. But whatever.

There is some to like in The Legend of Hercules too, and a number of the fights are serviceable. In one shot he wields a sword charged up with lightning. The wide shots are cheaply rendered, but they're not done incompetently or without attention to style. There's a little bit of camp and what can only be a running joke in which the two adversaries, Hercules and Amphitryon, scream all the time. Nothing ambitious, but nothing awful.

In the end, The Legend of Hercules doesn't commit any new or heinous crimes and its references aren't to sources so excellent that you would rather watch the originals. As usual I'm always disappointed when a classically-themed movie doesn't live up to the richness of the ancient sources, but few, if any, ever do. Sure this movie is bad, but its 3% scores seems less a result of being an epic failure than being the wrong movie at the wrong time than.

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