The secret of every halfway-decent action director is that each has at least one other thing besides action that he or she can do really well — because, however cleanly or creatively it’s managed, action without context is nothing. Renny Harlin was one of the signal action auteurs of the nineties, with such disposably stylish, fun movies as The Long Kiss Goodnight, Deep Blue Sea, and Cliffhanger (his masterpiece). Rambling yet irreverent, these were decadent action epics that somehow never took themselves seriously. Because, action to one side, Harlin could also do comedy, and his timing was often impeccable. Think of John Lithgow’s goofy bad guy in Cliffhanger, or the unforgettable scene where Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten in Deep Blue Sea. But the director never could do romance. To his credit, he rarely tried, aside from the abortive Geena Davis–Matthew Modine love story in Cutthroat Island.
So naturally, Harlin’s new film, The Legend of Hercules, has zero humor and lots of romance. Starring second-string Twilight hunk Kellan Lutz as the legendary Greek demigod/hero, Hercules refashions the myth into a tale of love thwarted. Changing the Hercules story is nothing new, since the classic version of the tale is a downer, involving him killing his own children. This time around, Hercules, the illegitimate child of queen Alcmene of Tiryns (Roxanne McKee) and Zeus (Factory VFX), is set up and sent off on a purposely ill-fated mission by his foster father, King Amphitryon (the never-not-intense Scott Adkins). Hercules dreams of getting back home, not to rule or take revenge, but to claim the hand of his lover, Princess Hebe (Gaia Weiss). She in turn is also coveted by his dastardly, neurotic older brother Iphicles (Liam Garrigan), the legitimate child of the brutal Amphitryon and the long-suffering Alcmene. That’s a lot of love triangle, but the acting is so wooden, and the interactions between Hebe and Hercules so unimaginative (basically, he just shows her how strong he is) that we never really buy any of it. Everybody seems to have been cast based on their ability to either stare blankly, or to scream, often at the heavens.
The film then settles into a cross between Gladiator and the Christ tale, as Hercules is ambushed, sold into slavery, competes his way back to Greece and, once back in his kingdom, becomes a kind of renegade savior for his long-suffering people, with weirdly Christian overtones. (“Your father has always been there, you were just not ready for him,”
an angel a servant tells him at one point.) The only one of Hercules’s mythical labors that we see this one accomplish is the slaying of the Nemean Lion, early on. A shame, because I was looking forward to seeing Kellan Lutz clean some stables.
Yes, yes, but how's the action? It’s predictably stylish — Harlin has clearly put his DVD of 300 to good use — but in a thoroughly hollow way. He goes wild with speed-ramping, which is useful for anyone who wants to more closely examine the slo-mo man-meat on display, but as a way of creating excitement, it’s a bust. The 3-D, though, is effective: The film throws lots of things in our face — arrows, swords, spears, bulging arms, etc. — without forsaking clarity. But it’s hard to care about action scenes when you know who’s going to win, every single time. More important, it’s hard to care about action scenes when there’s nothing worthwhile at stake.
Lutz’s complete lack of charisma is certainly part of the problem: He’s got shoulders that seem to stretch on for infinity, but his face only registers a couple of emotions. He seems, frankly, out of his element. That’s not so bad for his early scenes, where he has to play a naïve, trusting figure, but later on, his limited range starts to wear on us. At the very least, you wish he’d have fun with the part. There’s little humor in the script, but there’s potential for humor in the visuals: At one unintentionally goofy point, Hercules whips an army with two giant chunks of pillars tied to chains; later, he whips them with a thunderbolt. I kept wondering what a young, pre-crazy Mel Gibson might have done with scenes like that, maybe playing up the slapstick aspect of it. But like so many of today’s action films, The Legend of Hercules is too busy peddling slick, stone-faced portent to ever bother making us laugh, or engaging us in any way.