It is a truth universally acknowledged that any genre movie dumped upon us in the barren month of January is likely a dog. When the movie's producers withhold it from press scrutiny until the night before it opens, that likelihood approaches certainty. And when the movie's director is revealed to be Renny Harlin, whose past transgressions are several, the case is all but closed.
So The Legend of Hercules is no surprise. The story is a hash of beefcake mythology, the dialogue a steady dribble of earthbound utterance; and the sword-clanging action—encased in some of the cruddiest 3D since Clash of the Titans—is a master class in un-excitement.
All of which leaves us a lot of time to wonder why Harlin, who had a hand in the script, should have thought anyone wanted the demigod Hercules to be brought back from the superhero retirement home in which he'd been languishing for the last couple of decades. As a live-action subject, the character was always a cartoon. The first big movie in which he featured—the 1958 Hercules—starred heavily oiled bodybuilder Steve Reeves, who set the cheesy template for the golden age of Italian sword-and-sandal epics that followed. The 1969 Hercules in New York – which everyone should seek out!—launched the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Disney turned the property into an actual cartoon (and minted millions) in 1997. And that was it. Until, alas, now.
Legend was filmed in Bulgaria, but is actually situated in the more-familiar land of rampant CGI. Virtually none of the environments here—from the roiling digital skies to the dubious digital waterfalls—feel real. And while the story is set in Greek antiquity, the characters are of course fully conversant with gleaming capped teeth, highlighted hair and carefully tended bro-style face stubble.
Kellan Lutz has the misfortune to play Hercules. In the Twilight movies, Lutz was an agreeable hunk in the bland Chris Pine mold. Here, however, his eyes have an oddly porcine cast, peering out from a face that might have been mashed flat with a plate. This is distractingly strange. It could well be an effect wrought by the movie's crude cinematography, but it also suggests that some of the heavy bulking-up required for the role went to the actor's head.
Hercules' immortal lineage is established early on, when we see his mother, Queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee), being ravished in her chambers by the famously randy god Zeus, who manifests as a billowy bedsheet. Years pass. Alcmene's husband, the treacherous King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins), knows the noble Hercules isn't his son—the kid bears no resemblance to his elder brother, a pouty snot named Iphicles (Liam Garrigan). Iphicles, in turn, resents Hercules because he has won the heart of the beautiful Princess Hebe (Gaia Weiss), who is betrothed to Iphicles much against her will. All of this bodes ill, if not in any especially interesting way.
Amphitryon commands Hercules to lead a detachment of soldiers to Egypt to quell some vague revolt. He has arranged for all of them to be slaughtered, but Hercules and his friend Sotiris (Liam McIntyre) survive. They're enslaved and forced into gladiatorial combat against hulking brutes with names like Half Face and Humbaba. These fight scenes are tiring to sit through, garbled as they are by the chintzy 3D; and they're rendered even more incoherent by the hacky-slash editing and the frequent gusts of slo-mo used to underline the eearghh! expressions on the characters' faces. In any case, by means of a sly ruse, Hercules and Sotiris make their way back to Greece, where Hercules is amusingly reunited with Hebe. (She comes upon him in a sylvan pool. "It's me," he explains. He's been gone for maybe two months.) The final showdown with Amphitryon and Iphicles has a certain excitement, heralding, as it does, the end of the picture.
This is a movie that's just passing through on its way to VOD; no one is pretending there'll be a sequel. Give thanks to the gods of your choice.