Hercules is a hard guy to get right, but filmmakers keep trying

San Francisco ChronicleJuly 24, 2014 

  • About 'Hercules'

    Not reviewed before press time. PG-13 for violent battle sequences, sexual references. 1.38.

    2D and 3D: Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Movie Tavern, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill.

With this week's release of Paramount MGM's Hercules, featuring Dwayne Johnson in the leonine mantle and laboring overtime, Hollywood drops yet another Greco-Roman spectacle on entirely suspecting audiences.

The concept, of course, is sound — "Work from the classics, what could go wrong?" At least they're off to a more proven start than when adapting some forgotten TV series or whatever graphic novel is hot this week. Then why are so few of the resulting films classics?

In the last 10 years alone we've seen Clash of the Titans; Wrath of the Titans; Immortals (pre-Superman Henry Cavill as Theseus); Minotaur (pre-Bane Tom Hardy as Theseus); Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and its sequel, The Sea of Monsters; The Spirit (which features the Golden Fleece and the blood of Heracles as major plot devices); January's The Legend of Hercules; any number of TV and cartoon appearances of Hercules and Wonder Woman; and of course, Troy.

Laurels are hard to come by, however: The Rotten Tomatoes average critics' rating for those features is a horrid 31 (audiences were more generous: 44). Although, the ones for which grosses are available did average more than $227 million worldwide, so ... break out the vases!

When it comes to Heracles, there have been somewhere around 80 films featuring or related to ol' Magic Muscles, depending on how wide a net one casts. These include the two late-'50s Steve Reeves movies that started it all, the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fodder Hercules Against the Moon Men, Arnold Schwarzenegger's debut in Hercules in New York, and The Three Stooges Meet Hercules. Sure, he's essentially Superman in sandals, but that's a lot of flicks for a guy whose origin is keyed to a divine rape and the hero's murder of his own children as a result of Hera-driven madness.

So of course Disney got into the act with its 1997 animated take, a kind of Looney Tunes-meets-En Vogue Hercules. The well-reviewed film caused a stir in Greece, where the studio's bid to hold its premiere at a historic site was rejected by the Greek government following a reported media backlash over the animated musical's reimagining of the legend.

This spring saw the release of The Legend of Hercules, starring Twilight's Kellan Lutz and directed by Renny Harlin. It failed to make back its $70-million budget and currently holds an epically low 3-percent rating.

So apparently even this heroic template doesn't guarantee immortality. While it's hard to imagine the new film reaching the underworld-like depths of Legend of, the studio isn't screening its Brett Ratner-helmed Hercules in time for advance press. Still, of the more than 80 movies Rotten Tomatoes lists with Hercules in the title, the five with critics' ratings average an abysmal 31.4 percent — and that includes the Disney version (82 percent).

After all, Hercules/Heracles isn't exactly the easiest guy to root for. No underdog, he's actually the son of a god, and not just any god: Jupiter/Zeus, the head honcho of Olympus.

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