Summit via Everett Collection
You can imagine that Renny Harlin, director and one quadrant of the writing team for The Legend of Hercules, began his pitch as such: We'll start with a war, because lots of these things start with wars. It feels like this was the principal maxim behind a good deal of the creative choices in this latest update of the Ancient Greek myth. There are always horse riding scenes. There are generally arena battles. There are CGI lions, when you can afford 'em. Oh, and you've got to have a romantic couple canoodling at the base of a waterfall. Weaving them all together cohesively would be a waste of time — just let the common threads take form in a remarkably shouldered Kellan Lutz and action sequences that transubstantiate abjectly to and fro slow-motion.
But pervading through Lutz's shirtless smirks and accent continuity that calls envy from Johnny Depp's Alice in Wonderland performance is the obtrusive lack of thought that went into this picture. A proverbial grab bag of "the basics" of the classic epic genre, The Legend of Hercules boasts familiarity over originality. So much so that the filmmakers didn't stop at Hercules mythology... they barely started with it, in fact. There's more Jesus Christ in the character than there is the Ancient Greek demigod, with no lack of Gladiator to keep things moreover relevant. But even more outrageous than the void of imagination in the construct of Hercules' world is its script — a piece so comically dim, thin, and idiotic that you will laugh. So we can't exactly say this is a totally joyless time at the movies.
Summit via Everett Collection
Surrounding Hercules, a character whose arc takes him from being a nice enough strong dude to a nice enough strong dude who kills people and finally owns up to his fate — "Okay, fine, yes, I guess I'm a god" — are a legion of characters whose makeup and motivations are instituted in their opening scenes and never change thereafter. His de facto stepdad, the teeth-baring King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins), despises the boy for being a living tribute to his supernatural cuckolding; his half-brother Iphicles (Liam Garrigan) is the archetypical scheming, neutered, jealous brother figure right down to the facial scar. The dialogue this family of mongoloids tosses around is stunningly brainless, ditto their character beats. Hercules can't understand how a mystical stranger knows his identity, even though he just moments ago exited a packed coliseum chanting his name. Iphicles defies villainy and menace when he threatens his betrothed Hebe (Gaia Weiss), long in love with Hercules, with the terrible fate of "accepting [him] and loving [their] children equally!" And the dad... jeez, that guy must really be proud of his teeth.
With no artistic feat successfully accomplished (or even braved, really) by this movie, we can at the very least call it inoffensive. There is nothing in The Legend of Hercules with which to take issue beyond its dismal intellect, and in a genre especially prone to regressive activity, this is a noteworthy triumph. But you might not have enough energy by the end to award The Legend of Hercules with this superlative. Either because you'll have laughed yourself into a coma at the film's idiocy, or because you'll have lost all strength trying to fend it off.
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Mary (Jena Malone) -- born again at the age of 3 and an unquestioning bible thumper ever since -- is about to start her senior year at American Eagle Christian High School and God is smiling on her. She and her pretty devout friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) are popular she has a handsome boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) and she religiously rocks out at Christian concerts. The first sign of trouble is when ice-skating chastity embracing Dean tells Mary he thinks he's gay. Determined to bring her man back to the Lord Mary makes a deal with Jesus: She'll seduce Dean if the Lamb of God then restores her "emotional" and "spiritual" virginity. Cut to a few weeks later: Dean-o's been packed off to sexuality rehab Mary can't keep her breakfast down and all of a sudden Jesus is looking a lot less like a pal and a lot more like a used car salesman. With the core of her faith shrinking as her belly is expanding Mary sees her peers in a whole new light -- "perfect" Hilary Faye has plenty of flaws and "bad girl" Cassandra (Eva Amurri) might not be the spawn of Satan after all. All of which helps Mary and company discover what being a Christian really means -- just in time for prom!
The cast of Saved! is almost as eclectic a mix as a real high school class. Malone Amurri (Susan Sarandon's daughter) Patrick Fugit (as alterna-cutie skateboarder Patrick) and Heather Matarazzo (as blunt hanger-on Tia) are all card-carrying members of the Hip Indie Actors club while Moore and Macaulay Culkin (as Hilary Faye's wheelchair-bound brother Roland) come from the Much-Mocked Pop Culture Icon school. All acquit themselves admirably with Moore and Amurri as particular standouts. Moore has Hilary Faye's mix of smug self-entitlement and hollow concern nailed: This is one pop tart who knows how to play a sugar-coated bitch. Her showy piousness is particularly amusing when you contrast it with her PAX-worthy performance as a doomed preacher's daughter in A Walk to Remember. Playing American Eagle's token Jewish student Amurri expertly offers glimpses of tough-talking Cassandra's inner vulnerability and warm heart; her scenes with Culkin's wryly cynical Roland are some of the movie's best. Malone is occasionally a bit tepid but her sparks with Fugit seem real. The token adult actors -- Mary-Louise Parker as Mary's trashy widowed mother Lillian and Martin Donovan as principal Pastor Skip (whose insecurity almost overwhelms his own faith) -- also turn in strong performances.
Saved! made its debut at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and it's not hard to see why: Brian Dannelly's film has "indie" written all over it. Dannelly deserves credit for pushing the envelope as far as he has -- suffice it to say that Saved! probably won't go over so well in the heartland (or even the suburbs) -- but the film isn't a total success. Its mix of dark humor and sincere sentiment is a bit jarring; just when you're guffawing at Dannelly's send-up of "hip Christianity" in the form of Pastor Skip's unbelievably lame attempts to connect with his young flock ("let's get our Christ on!") or Hilary Faye's forceful attempts to perform a drive-by saving on the wayward Mary you land with a bump as Mary and her mom share a quiet moment or Patrick and his dad exchange some tense words. It's obvious that Dannelly didn't want Saved! to be dismissed as mere parody but the film strays too far into spoof territory to be a drama and vice versa.