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The many faces of Hercules: Endless adaptations lack muscle

By Michael Ordoña
San Francisco Chronicle
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/24/13/07/199pRx.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Photo credit: Kerry Brown - PARAMOUNT PICTURES
    Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) and Iolaus (Reece Ritchie, right) in “Hercules.”
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/24/13/07/c8lXs.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Photo credit: Kerry Brown - PARAMOUNT PICTURES
    Dwayne Johnson plays the latest movie version of Hercules.

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. One might even count this year’s second big-studio take on the ancient Übermensch as stipulation that the movie biz is a little short on new ideas.

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.

This spring saw the release of “The Legend of Hercules,” starring “Twilight’s” Kellan Lutz and directed by Renny Harlin (“Cutthroat Island”). It failed to make back its $70-million budget and currently holds an epically low 3-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

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 Disney’s 1997 animated 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 BMOC of Olympus.

For the Pantheon

Here are a few other notable films featuring Greco-Roman mythology and released in the last 10 years:

“Clash of the Titans” (2010): Director Louis Leterrier has made some fun flicks – among them, “The Incredible Hulk” (with Edward Norton), the first “Transporter” movie and “Unleashed” with Jet Li. Apart from the Scorpiochs battle, this is not one of those fun movies.

“Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” (2010): Based on the kids’ books aimed at the “Harry Potter” crowd; followed by a sequel (“… and the Sea of Monsters,” 2013) with possibly more to come.

“Troy” (2004): At the risk of being pilloried in the public square, this writer will bear this exciting, intelligent film’s standard to the end. The Director’s Cut is particularly good. The movie deserves an entire, in-depth, long-form essay, but here will have to settle for, “Look – even Peter O’Toole is in it!”

“Wrath of the Titans” (2012): It is so aggressively illogical that one wonders if the filmmakers were making a sly statement about mythology itself. But then one realizes that’s likely a sight too much credit to give a movie in which humans battle fire demons from hell by … throwing fire at them. Fine cinematography, though.

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