A towering figure of Greek mythology, the half-human, half-god strong man Hercules has always been something of a schlock icon where movies are concerned, from the wave of Italian-made, sword-and-sandal cheapies that broke upon these shores in the 1950s and ‘60s to their 1980s Cannon Films derivants starring Lou Ferrigno. The song remains very much the same for “The Legend of Hercules,” the first of two dueling 2014 tentpoles to reach theaters, and every inch the one that might have been commissioned by the late impresario Alexander Salkind in his “Santa Claus: The Movie” period. Costly in price ($75 million) but totally kitsch in execution, from its wooden dialogue to its low-rent international cast and its very CG-looking CGI, “Legend” is ideal fodder for undiscriminating 12-year-old boys on a lazy weekend afternoon, though even they may opt to wait for the Rock in MGM/Paramount’s Brett Ratner-directed “Hercules,” due in July.
As with last summer’s Beltway demolition derby of “Olympus Has Fallen” and “White House Down,” the canny B-movie magnate Avi Lerner (who produced through his Millennium Films banner) is once again betting that the early bird will catch the box office worm. But lacking “Olympus’” star wattage and facing stiff competition from Christmas season holdovers, “Legend” will be hard-pressed to match its predecessor’s commercial heft. Still, the movie is not without its incidental pleasures — chiefly, a 90-minute running time (sans credits) that alone makes it preferable to the bloated spectacle of “47 Ronin.”
Back at the helm of a large-scale action picture for the first time since his Sylvester Stallone auto-racing turkey “Driven” in 2001, Renny Harlin kicks things off with a thunderous battle scene in which hordes of CG warriors under the command of the Tirynthean King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins) storm the gates of neighboring Argos circa 1200 B.C., 3D arrows raining down on the audience in old-fashioned, comin’-at-ya style. But while Amphitryon is an undisputed victor on the battlefield, we soon see that things haven’t been kosher for a while between him and his beleaguered wife, Queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee), who longs for peace in their war-torn land.
Having exhausted all other options, she prays to the goddess Hera for help and receives a surprising response: It seems that Hera’s s.o., Zeus, has always coveted Alcmene from afar, and if Alcmene agrees to let him sire her child, that boy, Hercules, will lead his people to salvation. (Lurking around the edges of these early scenes is Rade Serbedzija as the queen’s Gandalf-like mentor, Chiron.)
This leads to a conception scene that resembles a cross between an expensive perfume ad and an exorcism — all thunder, lightning and billowing curtains — which probably explains why Amphitryon suspects something foul from the start and vows to always treat this bastard son, whom he christens Alcides, as inferior to his firstborn, Iphicles. The pic then flashes forward 20 years, where we find the bronzed and bulgingly muscular Alcides (Kellan Lutz) in love with the Cretan princess Hebe (the blankly beautiful Gaia Weiss) and openly loathed by both Amphitryon and Iphicles (Liam Garrigan), who fancies Hebe for himself. So the king and his heir apparent plot to rid Alcides from the picture by sending him off to war — and certain death — in Egypt.
If “The Legend of Hercules” takes most of its visual cues from “300” and the “Lord of the Rings” series (albeit without anywhere near the same level of seamless craftsmanship), it borrows most of its narrative beats from “Gladiator,” following Alcides/Hercules on his journey into the bowels of slavery, his discovery of his true parentage and god-like abilities, and his return home to confront his betrayers. Along the way, the movie happens upon its two most engaging episodes — one, a close-quarters ambush in an Egyptian cave that leaves Hercules and fellow soldier Sotiris (Liam McIntyre) the only survivors, the other a Sicily-set gladiatorial bout in which Hercules squares off against a giant mutant known fittingly as Half Face. Both serve as reminders that Harlin can still execute a solid action sequence, with an attention to perspective and spatial continuity that many of his contemporaries lack, even if he’s a bit too fond of freeze-frames and slow-motion that threaten to trun every fight scene into its own instant replay.
But “Hercules” sinks into torpor whenever something other than hand-to-hand combat takes centerstage. As he demonstrated in the “Twilight” series, Lutz’s acting muscles aren’t nearly as well developed as his pectorals and deltoids, and while the role may not call for a master thespian, it at least begs someone who can emote without looking like he’s straining to execute a deadlift. Relative newcomer McIntyre, who assumed the lead role in “Spartacus” on TV from the late Andy Whitfield, gives by far the most affecting and nuanced turn here as a man driven to extraordinary lengths by the hope of someday reuniting with his family.
Shot in Bulgaria (where Millennium now has its own studio), “Legend” isn’t as distractingly cheap looking as other Lerner productions, with decent set and costume work, though the CGI is always more high-end videogame than anything approaching photorealism. Sam McCurdy’s 3D camerawork is mostly effective, but was marred at the screening reviewed by the conspicuous dimness that afflicts so much 3D projection.