Sunday, December 25, 2016

(The Legend of) Hercules (USA, dir. Renny Harlin, scr. Sean Hood and Daniel Giat, 2014)

Renny Harlin once made a good movie that I enjoyed. It's called The Long Kiss Goodnight, and yes, it's preposterous, and you do wonder why, given that he was married to Geena Davis at the time, he needs to contrive so many opportunities for her to be in her underwear, but it's a movie I always enjoy watching when it comes on telly, as it regularly does. Until The Legend of Hercules, I hadn't seen anything he's made since, and judging by his regular nominations for Golden Raspberries, I haven't missed anything.

The Legend of Hercules, renamed from Hercules to avoid confusion with another (and rather better) 2014 Hercules movie,* doesn't change my impression of Harlin's work in the slightest. It's poorly written, with plot threads discarded as soon as they are of no further interest, poorly directed, and poorly acted, with the improbably named Kellan Lutz, and his improbable pectorals, in the role of Hercules. And there's a Nemean Lion which is so poor it could hardly be worse had they got ventriloquist's dummy Lenny the Lion to do it.

The movie is a hodge-podge of bits taken from other, more accomplished movies. 300, of course, is referenced a lot, and there are a number of the sort of scenes that 300 made a norm, and which are all over Starz' Spartacus series, where exteriors in antiquity are apparently not convincing unless they are filmed in a studio. There's a lot of Gladiator, in scenes anachronistically set in the arena. But there's also nods towards Saving Private Ryan, Troy, Clash of the Titans - there's even a snowy funeral so reminiscent of Anthony Mann's Fall of the Roman Empire that it's hard to believe it's not deliberate, even though the reference would mean little to Harlin's main audience. Towards the end, there's a lengthy section that imitates (not too surprisingly) Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, before Hercules pulls down pillars to which he has been chained, a scene that ultimately goes back to the story of Samson, but which is found in the 1958 Hercules. And then the story suddenly goes all Thor for no readily apparent reason.

The Legend of Hercules is pretty free with its use of mythological characters (not necessarily a point against it); Iphicles and Amphitryon, Hercules' brother and father, are not particularly evil in the existing sources, but the movie needs them to be for the clichéd story it has chosen to tell. Hebe, the goddess who marries Hercules when he is admitted into the ranks of the immortals, here becomes the mortal love interest of the young son of Zeus. Other ancient Greek names are randomly employed - Iolaus, who mythographers will recognise as Hercules' nephew, and fans of The Legendary Journeys know as his best mate, appears as the child of Hercules' ally Sotiris. And there are even less important characters called Agamemnon and Creon.

The movie is also a good illustration of Gideon's Nisbet's argument that Hollywood often has difficultly presenting Greece on screen, because it ends up looking too much like Rome. This emerges not only in the obvious moments such as the arena sequences, where Kenneth Cranham's Lucius is done up in a shabby toga, but also in the battle scenes, where troops march complete with very Roman looking banners. The fact that a battlefield tactic is described as 'testudo' just demonstrates how little anyone involved cares about any distinction between Greece and Rome.

The movie almost does something interesting at the end. Hera has foreshadowed that peace does not lie in Hercules' future, and Hebe stabs herself rather than be used as a hostage by Iphicles, but then ... she doesn't die. Instead, in a twist that bears all the hallmarks of a post-test screening reshoot, Hercules gets the happy-ever-after ending that Hera said he would be denied, and precludes any sequels. They may already have realised that wouldn't be an issue.

* Indeed, when shown on Channel 5, where I saw it, the title had reverted to Hercules.

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