Whatever happened to Renny Harlin?
Some would argue that he was never a force to be reckoned with at all; a poor man’s Michael Bay who never deserved the success he once had to begin with. Sure, he was responsible for some rancid schlock (Cutthroat Island, Exorcist: The Beginning). And while he was certainly never playing on the same level as other action directors like Steven Spielberg or even John McTiernan, he was nevertheless responsible for some solid B and C-level action flicks, including Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and my personal favourite, Deep Blue Sea, a movie I own and unapologetically love. There’s no mistaking that those films are mere shadows of the films that inspired them; Die Hard 2 is no Die Hard, and Deep Blue Sea is no Jaws. Still, there’s plenty of entertainment value to be mined there, even if Harlin never made anything on the same level as Lethal Weapon or The Road Warrior.
I will say this, though—his latest film, Hercules: The Legend Begins is a big step down from even those mid-grade cult-camp-classics. Hercules is to Harlin’s earlier work what that output was to the masterpieces that inspired it—a pale imitation; a colourless copy; a faint shadow of what he was once capable of. Hercules is sorely lacking in any qualities that may have made Harlin’s films palatable in the past: wit, humour, style, charm, or even swagger—the quality most associated with the Hercules (or “Heracles”) of Greek myth and legend. None of that is to be found here. Hercules: The Legend Begins is witless, brainless, and dead on arrival. Any style the movie has is completely ripped off from other action directors. Harlin always specialized in stealing from others, but he was able to make it work within the utilitarian action style of the 80’s and early 90’s. Here, he’s blatantly copying 2006-era Zack Snyder, packing the action with as much speed-ramping as he can squeeze into a sequence, stretching things out at least twice as long as they ought to be. This cribbing and copying isn’t even current—even Snyder has moved on from speed-ramping, and when he was using it, he used it with a lot more grace, style, and restraint than Renny Harlin is able to muster here.
Perhaps “Hercules’” biggest flaw is in how ridiculously silly the movie is—without being aware of it at all.
It’s perfectly fine to play the legend of Hercules as broad camp—after all, one of the most enduring pop culture interpretations of the myth is the 1990’s syndicated TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys; executive-produced by master of camp Sam Raimi (the Evil Dead trilogy), the Kevin Sorbo-starring Hercules was full of anachronistic snark, slapstick, goofy sound effects, and so much general over-the-top wackiness (Bruce Campbell was a recurring guest star, for crying out loud). But it worked—not only that, but it connected with audiences, enjoyed huge success, endured for years, and has stood the test of time. The difference is that it was completely self-aware and didn’t take itself seriously.
Renny Harlin’s version is, in its own way, every bit as silly as Sam Raimi’s, but unlike The Legendary Journeys, The Legend Begins treats itself as if it were high drama, plodding along without a clue how ridiculous it is. Hackneyed dialogue is treated like Shakespeare, and self-important dreck is given inappropriate gravitas. Harlin receives no help from his cast, who cannot hope to elevate this wet pulp; star Kellen Lutz lumbers around like a confused Neanderthal, seemingly possessed of only one facial expression and a poor excuse of a quasi-English accent. The scope alternates between aerial establishing shots that look like they were rendered in a computer, and cramped sets that make the production look cheap, like a TV movie.
Ultimately, that’s what this is—a bad TV movie. This is the CW/ABC Family version of Hercules—it’s just so PG-13, despite flirting with the idea of being violent (for no other apparent reason than that people seemed to like that Spartacus show, Hercules spends the second act as a gladiator) while cutting away from everything that isn’t a bunch of CG crap being thrown at your face to take advantage of the 3D, making those sequences seem like nothing else so much as than cheesy carnival rides. The film neither embraces the fantasy of legend nor the grit of reality, opting to try and split the difference and falling short at both.
In all respects, Hercules is a legendary failure. I never thought anyone could make me look forward to a Brett Ratner movie, but here’s hoping that the movie opening in July (starring The Rock as the son of Zeus—which sort of automatically makes it much better than this version), will find what The Legend of Hercules and director Renny Harlin so woefully lost in the translation.