The problems with The Legend Of Hercules, the first of two dueling Hercules films scheduled for 2014 release, begin with the title, and don’t end there. Though in this telling of the Greek demigod’s origin story, Hercules spends part of the movie not knowing he’s the son of Zeus, and is thus capable of feats of strength mere mortals could never hope to accomplish, the audience knows. So when Hercules takes on soldiers, pit-fighters, and other foes, it’s hard to worry about him too much. After all, he’s Hercules.
And apart from an early cameo by the Nemean Lion—one of the film’s few CGI creations that doesn’t look like it was created in an Intro To Adobe After Effects class—it’s mostly mere mortals squaring off against Hercules. Beefy, vacant actor/model and Twilight fixture Kellan Lutz plays him as a good kid with a bad half-brother named Iphicles (Liam Garrigan, who clearly studied Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator) and an even worse stepfather in the ruthless King Amphitryon (martial-arts star Scott Adkins). Amphitryon sends Hercules off to get killed in battle to remove any impediment from Iphicles marrying Hebe (Gaia Weiss), a Cretan princess and Hercules’ one true love, as evidenced by an early scene in which they frolic by a waterfall and stare into each other’s eyes with what sort of looks like longing. But Hercules isn’t killed off so easily—see above—so he makes his way back to Greece after a short career as a professional fighter. (He’s undefeated. Again, see above.) Once there, he and his sidekick Sotiris (Liam McIntyre) foment rebellion, much to Amphitryon’s displeasure.
Along the way, there’s barely a supernatural creature or mythical being to be seen. The first sign that things will be mundane: Chiron, Hercules’ mentor, isn’t an awesome centaur, he’s just some old guy. That might seem like a conscious choice, an attempt to make a more down-to-earth, believable Hercules for modern audiences, if it didn’t seem calibrated to keep the budget low, like most other elements in the film. The thrills aren’t just cheap, either: They’re largely borrowed. For a short moment in the early 1990s, Finnish director Renny Harlin looked like he might be the future of action filmmaking, bringing a clean, kinetic style to films like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger. Then in 1995, Harlin’s Cutthroat Island lost a lot of money, while Michael Bay’s The Rock pushed tastes in a different, more frenzied direction.
In Legend Of Hercules, Harlin mostly apes other people’s techniques, borrowing heavily from Zack Snyder’s 300 in particular, via stylized backdrops and annoyingly employed stop-start slo-mo effects. (There are also a lot of in-your-face 3-D effects, including many shots of skies filled with floating pollen that make the ancient world look like a hay-fever sufferer’s nightmare.) He doesn’t borrow all that well, either. Where 300 made a virtue of its low budget by stripping the visuals down to their essential elements, the shot-in-Bulgaria Legend Of Hercules mostly just looks rushed and cheap, only coming to life in a handful of fight scenes, and then only briefly. Spoiler: Hercules wins those. He’s Hercules.