The rumors of Renny Harlin’s demise – as a filmmaker – are, if nothing else, premature. Despite spending the better part of a decade working on forgettable, sometimes barely releasable, films (e.g., The Dyatlov Pass Incident, 12 Rounds, Cleaner, The Covenant, Mindhunters) and television (e.g., Covert Affairs, White Collar, Burn Notice) – a shock to anyone who remembers the Harlin once considered an A- or B-list action director (Die Hard 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight, among others) – Harlin is back, however temporarily, with his first wide release in half a decade, The Legend of Hercules, a slapdash, derivative mash-up of Spartacus, 300, Gladiator, and every other sword-and-sandal (non) epic made over the last fifty years. That it stars one of the Twilight Saga’s lesser luminaries, Kellan Lutz, as the over-muscled demi-god, only confirms that moviegoers should wait for their Hercules fix until the Dwayne Johnson-starring, Brett Ratner-directed Hercules: The Thracian Wars, arrives in multiplexes later this year.
We don’t meet the adult Hercules (Lutz) right away. Instead, The Legend of Hercules begins at the beginning, with his birth to a human mother, Queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee), and the unseen Greek god Zeus. For Alcmene, Hercules is the literal answer to her prayers. Disturbed by the tyrannical bloodlust of her husband, King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins), Alcmene prays to Hera at a temple. Hera answers her prayers through an oracle. She already has a son by Amphitryon and Amphitryon, as jealous and suspicious as he is brutal and violent, strongly suspects Hercules isn’t his son and treats him accordingly (as the unneeded spare to the rightful heir). Per the oracle, Hercules will grow up to dethrone his father and bring just rule back to his Greek kingdom.
All of the preceding, of course, is mere prologue to the all-important “20 Years Later” title card that moves to the action to the present and an adult, over-tanned Hercules (Lutz), cavorting with Hebe (Gaia Weiss), a princess from the island of Crete and the intended bride of Hercules’ older brother, Iphicles (Liam Garrigan, channeling his inner Joaquin Phoenix, circa Gladiator). Iphicles resents Hercules, mostly because Hercules has Most Favored Son status in Alcmene’s eyes and he doesn’t. It’s almost enough to turn Iphicles against his well meaning, if dull, younger brother. After Amphitryon’s men capture Hercules and Hebe attempting to elope, Amphitryon banishes Hercules to an Egyptian province with a semi-rebellious commander, Sotiris (Liam McIntyre). As another leader in another cinematic universe would say, “It’s a trap!” Hercules, however, has no choice, but to acquiesce to his (step) father’s wishes.
After an ambush leaves all but Hercules and Sotiris alive and sold into slavery, The Legend of Hercules segues completely into Gladiator territory. Hercules wants to get back home and stop the wedding of Iphicles and Hebe, but he has to fight his way through the gladiatorial arena. Harlin even casts an actor resembling the late Oliver Reed to play Hercules and Sotiris’s temporary owner. Even the political machinations back in Greece borrow shamelessly from Gladiator and 300. Alcmene proves to be a strong-willed, stubborn queen eager to right wrongs and remove her husband from the throne while Amphitryon seemingly counters her every move, Iphicles seethes at his unjust treatment in the shadows, and Hebe sinks into Ophelia-like despair when she hears about Hercules’ presumed death in Egypt.
Harlin stages the CG-heavy set pieces with typically unimaginative bluntness, repeatedly relying on the speed-ramping technique Zach Snyder perfected (and overused) on 300 eight years ago. With CG of variable quality often undermining key action beats and poorly overdubbed dialogue – The Legend of Hercules was shot in Bulgaria with locals as background extras – everything about Harlin’s attempted comeback looks and feels cheap (because it is). A woefully underwritten, unoriginal script credited to Skip Woods, Daniel Giat, Giulio Steve, and Renny Harlin, nonsensical, risible dialogue, or histrionic performances (minus Lutz who sounds positively restrained relatively to everyone else in the cast) don’t help The Legend of Hercules either. Then again, it’s hard to imagine anything helping what was a badly misconceived idea in the first (and last) place.