Nov 12, 2020
Movie Duel: Hercules vs. The Legend of Hercules
Welcome back to Movie Duels, in which we watch two dueling movies and offer our eminently qualified opinion of which film, if any, has a reason for existing, and which one should have been left back at the pitch meeting.
Hollywood has always loved adapting stories from Greek mythology. They’re grandiose, unsubtle, violent, and everyone’s already familiar with the characters: they’re basically superhero stories except you don’t have to pay anybody royalties. And like superhero films, the source material comprises a huge, sprawling corpus of different stories from multiple continuities, none of which is “official” in the usual sense. Which means that there’s nothing stopping Hollywood from going back to the well over and over, reinterpreting mythological stories and characters from as many new angles as they like; and indeed, in practice, nothing does.
In 2014, Hercules, already the subject of dozens of films, found himself onscreen twice more in The Legend of Hercules and Hercules. Would his legendary muscles be able to carry two films? That’ll be the subject of the latest installment of Movie Duels.
Revisionism is as old as storytelling itself, let alone movies; nonetheless, Hollywood seems to be perpetually rediscovering it and believing to be a hot new trend. Both The Legend of Hercules and Hercules purport to tell the story of the “real” Hercules, of which the stories we’re all familiar with are just a fanciful interpretation.
The Legend of Hercules retcons the life of Hercules to produce a story that’s different mainly in that it’s more boring. In this version, Hercules is the product of creepy phantom-sex between an invisible Zeus and a queen who prayed for a demigod child to overthrow her warmongering husband. Fast forward twenty years, and the cuckolded dad decides to send the li’l usurper on a doomed military mission to get rid of him. Hercules escapes his dad’s plot by accident and stumbles into a mashed together Ben-Hur/Spartacus plot where he gets sold to a lanista and becomes an awesome enough gladiator to buy his freedom and go back to Greece. He visits with Hera and becomes aware of his powers and his destiny, blah blah blah, he must rally the forces of good, blee bloo, kill mean dad and win princess who gives a fuck.
If you’re keeping track, the commonalities between this version of Hercules and the mythological version are as follows: “has Zeus for a dad”, “is a badass”. The filmmakers turned down every opportunity to actually engage with the myth in favor of trotting out the most generic muscly shout-y hurgleburgh imaginable. Open “Sword-and-sandal screenplay #488.docx”, ctrl-H [PROTAGONIST], replace with “Hercules”. It bugs me to no end that there are thousands of creative people in the movie industry with exciting stories to tell, and they can’t do it because paint-by-numbers dreck like this keeps getting greenlit instead.
By welcome contrast, Hercules actually does something with its meta-mythological conceit. In it, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is an older, wiser (but still immensely huge and strong) war veteran who leads a mercenary company. The Hercules story we’re all familiar with—the divine parentage, the superhuman strength, twelve labors, slaying of monsters, and all that—are tall tales that Hercules is only too happy to foster because they scare his enemies. Each of his supernatural feats is given a mundane explanation. As such, the movie explores some surprisingly mature themes about the intersection of myth and reality, and the power of narrative. It all falls apart in the third act, when (spoilers!) you find out that Hercules really does have superpowers, but Hercules deserves credit for actually putting revisionism to good use in a genre we wouldn’t expect it from.
It helps that Dwayne Johnson has buckets of charisma. His wrestling persona of the Rock has a reputation, even among non-wrestling fans like myself, for boasting, bombast, and gleeful shit-talk. It’s surprising, then, that his version of Hercules is such a knob.
It’s not Johnson’s fault. He plays the character with the full measure of his considerable charm and affability. But screenwriters Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos insist on turning him into a stolid, tiresomely reasonable, dad-ish guy with not even a hint of ego or dark streak. All his character-establishing dialogue is either unremarkable or painfully corny (I remember cringing at the trailer when he said “I only want to be a husband and father”; it doesn’t play any better in context). I’m all for unostentatious everyman heroes, but Christ, man, put a little sauce on it.
But at least he’s trying. And at least he’s in good company, talent-wise: he’s got Ian McShane’s crazy prophet, Rufus Sewell’s sarcastic thief, and John Hurt’s scenery-gnawing villain to trade lines with. The star of The Legend of Hercules has none of these. Kellan Lutz (I can’t read that enough times to make it look like a real name) is… well, let’s not mince words; he’s very bad. You can find half a dozen equally animated portrayals of Hercules in your local art museum’s classical exhibit. He’s very clearly here to look pretty and bulge in the right places and everything else is an afterthought. He also flares out his lips like Steven Tyler during all his fight scenes, and really every time he exerts himself even slightly; it bugs me.
Speaking of which, let’s talk a bit about the fight scenes. I could go on at some length about the influence of 300 on the sword-and-sandal genre, but right now I’ll stick to two things. First of all, speed-ramping, otherwise known as “when the fight goes slow slow slow slow slow and then reallyreallyfast!” is something Legend of Hercules’s director Renny Harlin does like it’s going out of style (which it is). Problem is, he doesn’t know how to use it. In 300, it was used to underscore the brutal physicality of the fight scenes, when Zack Snyder wanted his audience to really feel a hit. Harlin uses it incessantly because he doesn’t know shit about making fights look interesting and he needs shortcuts. It’s the Auto-Tune of action moviemaking, like “bullet time” effects were in the previous decade, and at this point, it’s nearly as played out.
300 also gave us numerous sequences during battle scenes where a soldier would break out of formation without being told to, so he could come around and do some sword-swinging on his own: make a big dramatic sword slice, bowl a guy over with his shield, jump and flip and tuck and roll with a sweeping strike, you know how it goes. Unsurprisingly, The Legend of Hercules has many of these same sequences. It’s stupid because any actual military commander would beat the ass of anyone who broke out of their carefully maintained formation just because they wanted to be a badass. It perhaps perfectly encapsulates the guiding ethos of this kind of movie: style above practicality in all things.
I don’t like it, but I’ve come to accept it as a genre feature. Which is why I was so surprised that Hercules’s Hercules, when training new recruits, harps on keeping formation above all else. He basically says that it’s dumb to endanger your life and your buddies’ lives with risky theatrics when you could just hunker down, do your part, keep your shield wall strong, and live to go home. It’s a small detail, but along with the mythological meta-analysis I already talked about, it really speaks to the level of mature sensibilities that Hercules aspires to.
Of course, Herc and his buddies undercut this theme as well by running in front of the line and getting in exactly the kind of flashy one-on-one fights they told everybody to avoid. I’m strangely okay with this, though. I’m much happier when a movie’s reach exceeds its grasp than when it just doesn’t try.
Which One Needs to Exist?
Hercules. By a country mile. I didn’t even get a chance to mention Legend’s uniformly atrocious acting, stilted dialogue, Xbox-caliber CGI effects, weird editing that made me never sure a scene was over, or the fact that it starred the guy who made the Spartacus TV show unwatchable. Hercules is a flawed movie, but it’s cleverer, more competent, more ambitious, and more fun than The Legend of Hercules on every conceivable level.