30 July 2014

Herculeses

Like asteroids, Snow White and exploded White Houses before him, Hercules gets two new movies on the big screen within a few months of one another, both in 3D. Has this kind of clash ever panned out well for anybody?

Anyway, the latter (and bigger) of the two is currently playing in cinemas. Brett Ratner's Hercules, stars Dwayne Johnson as the hero of a take nominally based on Steve Moore's graphic novel The Thracian Wars. But earlier this year, you might have missed Renny Harlin's The Legend of Hercules, which starred Kellan Lutz as the legendarily strong hero. Seeing as how most youngsters will know either the 1997 Disney movie or the beloved Sam Raimi-produced series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, let's see how these new takes measure up... FIGHT!

The Legend of Hercules begins with tyrant king Amphitryon conquering the city of Athens, while his estranged wife Alcmene prays to the gods for peace. In response, Zeus impregnates her with a child who is destined to bring peace, who the gods will know as Hercules. 20 years later, the boy has been christened Alcides by the king, who clearly prefers his own legitimate son Iphicles for the throne. When Iphicles is betrothed to Alcides' sweetheart, Princess Hebe, our hero is sold into slavery and forced to embrace his heritage as the mighty Hercules to bring an end to tyranny.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and yet Harlin's B-movie hotch-potch of sword and sandals fantasy epics, with its hero's needlessly complicated identity crisis, smells far worse than the things that influenced it. While viewers may know the legend through the Kevin Sorbo or cartoon Herc intepretations, Harlin's version sees him as Maximus, Robin of Locksley, Superman and Christ all rolled into one. Visually, the film takes cues from 300 and The Lord of the Rings (the film appears to be set in a Middle Zealand kind of realm, but often looks more like a cheaper version of the digital backdrop to The Hobbit) and doesn't really flow in any coherent way.

Having watched five Twilight movies and now this one, I have no idea what possessed Kellan Lutz to be an actor. A Ken doll has more charisma, but at least he has the look of his plastic counterpart down pat here. The surrounding cast can only look better by proximity, except perhaps for Liam Garrigan as Iphicles, who looks like he has been nudged into a weak Tom Hiddleston impersonation to enliven his Loki-lite character arc (throw Thor on the rip-off pile too.) On the other hand, this might be the most acting that has ever been required of martial artist and stuntman Scott Adkins and he really digs into playing Amphitryon- it's a shame that his snarling villain doesn't have a correspondingly big hero to take on.

About the only thing that stands apart as different here is that it's the first Hollywood movie in a while that has mommy issues rather than daddy issues. The story bears less resemblance to its titular legend than it does to all of those other movies, which gives them the licence to cast Hera as the one who permits Zeus to impregnate Alcmene. Both women go on to figure prominently in the rest of the movie- what scant character there is to the men is defined by the women. Though it's a far cry from an equal representation of gender relations, it's at least a little distinctive.

The Legend of Hercules is kit-bashed from a dozen other movies just like it, overwhelmed by an amateur-hour performance from Kellan Lutz, incoherent and derivative action and shonky CGI that likely lent itself to some patronising "oh jeez, it's coming towards me" 3D in cinemas. If you were really looking forward to a Hercules movie, and this were the only one, Kevin Sorbo knows how you would feel.



The Legend of Hercules is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and video on-demand.

From March to the height of the summer blockbuster season, Ratner's Hercules immediately looks better by comparison, but also stands on its own merits. While Harlin's only concession to the original legend was a scrap with the Nemean lion, this one tangles with the labours of Hercules while more firmly focusing on the character behind them. Leading a band of mercenaries who are only too happy to exaggerate the stories to bolster their reputation, Hercules is contracted by Cotys, the king of Thrace, to train his army to face a bloodthirsty warlord.

The script for this one is unabashedly daft, set more in the mould of an action comedy (emphasis on the former rather than the latter) than a gritty reboot. True, there are attempts to ground the film in some realism throughout, but these are the various rational explanations for the exaggerated labours of Hercules, which are rendered in a montage of obvious CGI (perhaps deliberately?) in the first five minutes and then deconstructed as we get to know Hercules himself. The film has a sense of humour about itself, and the cynicism is grounded there, rather than in Christopher Nolan-ism.

Again, Dwayne Johnson is a million times better than Kellan Lutz, any day of the week. But despite this appreciable uplift in charisma, I'm still not sure it's Johnson's most convincing turn. Aside from the hairpiece, (which takes a little getting used to) his particular style is closer to the heart-of-gold lunk in the Disney version than the tormented mercenary character he's playing here. Johnson's giving it his all, physically and dramatically, and if nothing else, it's inherently enjoyable to see him in a role he was probably born to play. Whether he was born to play it in this film is a matter for the audience to decide.

All the same, the rest of the cast is pretty excellent. A little of either Rufus Sewell, Ian McShane or John Hurt will go a long way and this one lines all three of them up marvellously. Hurt can do this kind of role in his sleep, but Sewell and McShane excel as Hercules' crew. McShane's character Amphiaraus gets a terrific running joke about his gift of prophecy and the notion that he has seen his own death. Random cuts to his face as he utters a "didn't see that coming" sound obvious but really work in context. However, an unrecognisable Aksel Hennie (from Headhunters) almost steals the show, as a mute assassin who gets plenty of funny and kick-ass moments through.

In taking a stance on the marked difference between legends and the people who forged them, the film has its cake and eats it too. By the third act, it positively wolfs down whatever cake it had up to that point, with Hercules' actual power level sliding up and down and all over the place. His godly heritage is never actually clear in that regard, but it is one of those films that's purposefully fun enough to skirt by such exposition. It also manages to skirt under the 15 categorisation too by playing right up to the Peter Jackson end of what's allowed in a 12A, with tonnes of violent, if bloodless, battle scenes and swearing, including one pitch perfect bon mot about centaurs, which Johnson delivers with gusto.

Brett Ratner's directorial style will always be a little gratuitous, (a woman's breast falls out of her dress in the opening scene and stays in the final cut) but in Hercules, that style suits it down to the ground. It's really enjoyable and genuinely funny in places, with a cast that's in on the joke and some lively action scenes. It has more of Conan the Barbarian (1982) than Conan the Barbarian (the shit one) and it's Ratner's most surprisingly-not-shit film since Red Dragon.

Hercules is now showing, in 2D and 3D, at cinemas and IMAX screens nationwide.
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If you've seen either of 2014's Hercules films, why not share your comments below? Does anyone have a serious argument that the Harlin-Lutz version was the better of the Herculeses?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

Rachel May said...

The plural of Hercules is almost definitely Herculi.