By Zeus, the prince of power hath fallen upon hard times. NBC slashed a quarter from what was to be a two-part, four-hour presentation, and excising another would at least remove most of the moments where the cast chews its way through the pretty New Zealand scenery. It’s been awhile since the Halmis scored on a major net with a mythological epic, and don’t look for their latest — facing the Herculean challenge of “Everybody Loves Raymond’s” finale — to break that streak. The demigod’s 13th labor, in fact, would be to sit through this in its entirety.
Even with the post-production downsizing because NBC ostensibly didn’t want to premiere a first part against “Desperate Housewives,” the grown-up Hercules (Scottish-born newcomer Paul Telfer) doesn’t appear for almost an hour. Until then, the story goes through his Hera-worshipping mother (Elizabeth Perkins) being ravaged by Zeus and his sea-faring stepfather Amphitryon (Timothy Dalton) bonding with a pint-sized, teenage Herc.
Eventually, the brawny adult arrives, but he’s soon tricked into slaying his own bastard children by the devious Megara (Leeanna Walsman), another Hera devotee, and thus assigned to perform a series of labors as penance, with the bard Linus (Sean Astin) in tow. In between, he finds time to woo the nymph Deianeira, played by Leelee Sobieski, who spends most of the time with her naked back to the camera.
Anyone weaned on Steve Reeves movies knows a certain amount of corny “by the gods” exposition goes with the territory, but director Roger Young and writer Charles Edward Pogue get bogged down in palace intrigue, and the glimpses of promise in the action scenes are invariably too fleeting.
It’s worth noting, too, that those sequences are particularly bloodthirsty, even allowing for the source material’s content. And while violence can be thrilling enough when well executed, that’s seldom the case here, with only the battle against the multiheaded Hydra exhibiting much imagination.
Nor does it help that the performances generally make “Clash of the Titans” resemble “The English Patient,” as Telfer exhibits a dazzling six-pack but is left mostly to shout and defiantly roar Hulk-like toward the heavens. As for Astin, a part historically included for comic relief provides him a role visually similar to “The Lord of the Rings” in that he follows a buddy across the panoramic countryside, if only little Frodo had been pumped full of steroids.
NBC’s “sell it with the title” movie strategy has yielded hits (think “10.5”) and misses (the recent “Mork & Mindy” nostalgia-thon), but “Hercules” seems misguided from the get-go, bringing nothing fresh to a character adapted so many times. Given that, no one is apt to confuse the few thunderbolts Zeus tosses around with a bright idea, much less the divine spark of inspiration.