Whether intentionally or not, The Legend Of Hercules plays like an attempt to revive peplum, the sword-and-sandals genre that dominated the Italian B-movie industry from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Shot on the cheap in Bulgaria (which has superseded Italy as Europe’s premier producer of B-films), the movie inadvertently recreates a key part of peplum’s camp appeal: its inherent phoniness. There are muscle men with modern hairstyles and perfect electric-beard-trimmer stubble squaring off against each other in recognizably Eastern European forests. There is cut-rate 3-D, which recalls the low-budget effects work of yesteryear; in one scene, a green-screened-in background appears completely flat, like a painted backdrop. The dialogue isn’t dubbed, but is written and delivered so indifferently that it might as well have been.
The script, credited to four writers, dispenses with most of the Hercules myth, instead inventing a conflict between the hero (Kellan Lutz) and his adopted father, King Amphitryon (direct-to-video action star Scott Adkins). Adkins, who excels at playing brooding loners, is woefully miscast; he’s also far too young to be playing a middle-aged character, and his paste-on beard doesn’t exactly contribute to his credibility in the role. Lutz, however, would be miscast in just about any role. He simply can’t act, and spends much of the movie looking like a confused Labrador retriever, his head slightly cocked, eyes communicating a willingness to please the audience combined with an inability to understand what he’s being asked to do.
While The Legend Of Hercules offers plenty for viewers who’ve acquired a taste for the fake and incompetent (not the least of which is the dialogue, which finds characters saying each other’s names at the end of every other sentence), it’s unlikely to please anyone who wants entertainment in the conventional sense. Neither cinematographer Sam McCurdy (best known for his work with Neil Marshall) nor director Renny Harlin invest the film with much personality.
Harlin was once one of Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster directors, but has since become a gun for hire; his last two films were 5 Days Of War (2011), a movie about the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia financed by the Georgian government, and Devil’s Pass (2013), a found-footage horror movie financed by Russian investors. Since re-inventing himself as a sort of international co-production mercenary, Harlin seems to have lost much of the visual sense that distinguished films like Die Hard 2, Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Style-wise, The Legend Of Hercules peaks with its first shot, a “single take” (actually a combination of digital effects and several shots stitched together) that starts underwater and then flies over a battlefield toward a besieged city as arrows fly toward the camera. It’s a striking opening, but it sets a high bar that the movie never reaches again. Instead, Harlin sticks to a combination of slow and sped-up motion (à la Zack Snyder) in subsequent battle scenes. The technique, only occasionally effective, has a tinge of sadness to it. Harlin’s own style once guaranteed box-office success; now he’s been reduced to imitating other filmmakers.