On the surface, The Legend of Hercules is yet another big-budget Hollywood attempt to cash in on the success of Gladiator, 300, and other modern-day rehashes of the popular sword-and-sandal epics of the ’50s and ’60s. Director Renny Harlin even goes so far as to borrow both Zack Snyder’s mannered stop-and-start rhythms in action sequences, frequently slowing down the frame rate within shots in order to emphasize supposedly awesome moments in fights, and Ridley Scott’s taste for momentous arena spectacle. But the film has more on its mind than being a mere knockoff; its deeper aspirations are, in fact, religious in nature.
The Legend of Hercules turns out to be a coming-of-age tale of sorts, with the Christ-like Hercules (Kellan Lutz) eventually learning to put his faith in his spiritual father, Zeus, after enduring a slew of physical, emotional, and moral challenges upon being exiled from his kingdom and sold into slavery. In stark opposition to the hero’s selflessness stands his earthly father, King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins), ruthless in his petty, coldblooded cruelty to not only his family, but also his own people. Call it Harlin’s The Passion of the Christ.
Alas, a film with such spiritual aspirations demands a less smoothly, generically professional sensibility than Harlin’s. Back in his 1990s heyday, he brought an undeniable over-the-top vivacity to action films like Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, reveling in the proudly trashy and sadistic, and almost always willing to push the limits of morality and good taste for the sake of ramping up on-screen excitement. In short, it’s a sensibility that isn’t especially well-suited to the kind of reverence he intends—at least in his own visually tacky, choppily paced way—for The Legend of Hercules. Given its virtuous subject matter and the relative bloodlessness of its violence, perhaps Harlin means for this film to be a means of atoning for his previous cinematic sins, such as they are (Cutthroat Island, anyone?). But because his usual clumsiness with actors ends up sinking most of the film’s dramatic scenes, bland competence in its CGI-heavy action scenes is, sadly, all that’s left of this would-be religious allegory.