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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It's rare that a sequel trumps the original but The Expendables 2 manages to do just that with a steady stream of one-liners and welcome weathered faces as well as a few new ingredients. E2 seems even more self-aware of its own silliness especially with Jean-Claude Van Damme as the villain (named Vilain of course) and Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger popping up in smaller roles alongside previous Expendables Sylvester Stallone Jason Statham Jet Li Dolph Lundgren Bruce Willis Terry Crews and Randy Couture.
Then again The Expendables wasn't any sort of action classic; it was like writer/director/star Stallone threw a whole bunch of ideas at the wall to see which would stick then added massive amounts of weapons and the occasional hand-to-hand combat. It was popular but it definitely not the kind of awesome actioner that the stars were able to make 10 or 20 years ago. There's the rub actually; like women actors who have written or directed their own projects because nothing else was available or satisfactory Stallone created The Expendables because Hollywood didn't seem to know what to do with him and his fellow action stars as they got older. It's easy to criticize Stallone et al for not doing the same amount of stunt work or hand-to-hand fighting that for example Statham is capable of but the whole thrust of the movie is that they're expendable -- to themselves to the world and until Stallone kickstarted these movies to Hollywood.
E2 is still clumsy but it's a little more adventurous and a little more introspective. Two new additions to the crew seem to throw everyone for a loop in one way or another. Liam Hemsworth shows up as Bill the Kid a sniper who left the military after a raid in Afghanistan went horribly wrong; his age and hopefulness not to mention physical prowess is a foil the Sylvester Stallone's Barney Ross and one that Barney is well aware of. Nan Yu joins the team as Maggie who is apparently the only person who can disarm the safe that holds whatever secret thing Church (Willis) has sent them to retrieve. And if the Expendables don't get her back alive Church will make them pay because even though Maggie is some sort of multilingual computer genius with a vicious roundhouse she's a lady. On one hand perhaps we're supposed to gather that this group of old dogs is learning new tricks by having to deal with a smart capable woman in their midst; the attempts Gunner (Lundgren) makes to flirt with her are clunky and goofy and she's obviously way too smart for fall for that claptrap. On the other when she whips out some instruments of torture Barney cracks "What are you going to do give them a pedicure?" And of course her role also devolves into an incredibly stilted and unbelievable romantic interest for Barney. One point for trying but two points deducted for falling into the romantic interest trap.
At times it's hard to tell whether or not we're laughing with the crew or at them. Plus because of how jam-packed the cast is some actors get the short end of the stick. Statham is the most charismatic of the bunch and he also has the most impressive hand-to-hand fight scenes but the emphasis in E2 is sheer firepower so he doesn't get nearly enough screen time. Couture is fairly forgettable while Lundgren plays the lunkiest of lunkheads; the running joke is that he has a chemical engineering degree from MIT and was a Fulbright Scholar which is supposed to be funny... except it's also true. (We're to assume he's mended his evil ways between the first Expendables and the second.) Is Lundgren agreeably poking fun at himself the same way Schwarzenegger hams it up at every turn? Or does E2 have shades of JCVD which stars Van Damme was a washed-up action star? Are the emotional moments supposed to fall so hilariously flat on purpose? For some reason it seems important to tease out which parts of these movies are earnest and which are tongue-in-cheek.
There's a weird melancholy about watching this group of aging action stars that has the same tang as watching someone you love grow older especially as they try so very hard to fight the ravages of time. If you dig a little deeper maybe deeper than E2 warrants you could find a well of sadness below the back-slapping antics. The world has changed and even though Stallone and his crew have muscles so hard and juicy they could pop out of their skin like grapes they can't compete with Bill the Kid and Maggie and others like them. They know it and we know it and while it's good fun to see old friends or onscreen enemies kill scores of bad guys (led by JCVD sporting a truly horrible fake Baphomet-style neck tattoo) there are better smarter more exciting and more interesting action films on the horizon.
And there's also The Expendables 3.
Dropping out of big-budget film projects seems to be the flavor of the year. Following Darren Aronofsky’s departure from Fox’s The Wolverine, two acclaimed directors left two anticipated movies yesterday, leaving their respective fates in limbo. David O. Russell (who ironically collaborated with Aronofsky on last winter’s The Fighter) exited Sony’s video game adaptation of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, while Albert Hughes walked out on Warner Bros. Akira. If you’re a fan of either property and are upset because you think these films are doomed, fear not. Hollywood always has a plan B, C and D. Another filmmaker will surely be hired for both and you’ll end up seeing them on the big screen one way or another. If I had my choice, however, I’d let one of these guys take on the responsibilities.
I’ve long been a fan of Natali’s work, which has largely been in the realm of sci-fi. Most recently, he got icky with the psycho-sexual creature feature Splice, but he’s also done great things in the genre with Nothing, a comedic take on the exploration of a complex existential situation, and Cypher, in which he made a thrilling action-adventure on a shoestring budget. Warner Bros. came on board Splice at the last minute to distribute the film to a wider audience, so the studio must have confidence in his unique vision. That’s why I think he deserves a shot at Akira, a project that would benefit from having a not-so-expensive director at the helm (gotta save for those special effects, you know).
Jones has become a bit of a savior for studio sci-fi in the last two years. He burst onto the scene with his trippy mind-game Moon, which rewarded him with the chance to helm a bigger project in Summit’s Source Code. The latter is actually one of the best-reviewed mainstream releases of the year and an all-around cool flick. It’s clear that this guy knows what works and what doesn’t within the genre, and he’s proven that he’s capable of handling a mid-range budget. The fact that Fox was considering using him to replace Aronofsky on Wolverine means that his stock is rising, so Warner Bros. should get on the DJ train quick.
My first thought was to go with Tony, because he’s not currently committed to a film like his older brother Ridley is. The veteran filmmaker has no problem managing hundred-million-dollar movies and even makes a good one every once in a while. The only reason I’m not totally gung-ho about having him direct Akira is because he’s rarely venture into the realm of science fiction (the one exception was Disney’s Déjà Vu, a convoluted but underrated adventure), but that’s where Ridley comes in. He’s responsible for some of the genre’s very best, including Alien and Blade Runner (and he’s currently working on what could be another milestone, Prometheus). The blockbuster brothers have never co-directed a picture in their long careers, so why not try it with Akira?
If there’s one thing that an Uncharted movie should be, it’s raw and intense. As writer of urban action hits like The Fast and the Furious, S.W.A.T. and Training Day and director of Harsh Times and Street Kings, I think that Ayer can bring a lot of adrenaline to the international adventures of Nathan Drake. Without question, he’d make the hand-to-hand combat as painfully authentic as it could be and would give the story a real sense of danger. He’s currently filming a new police thriller called End of Watch, but should be done in time to helm Uncharted for its planned 2013 release.
This is one guy who knows a thing or two about started a franchise out on the right foot. From James Bond to Zorro to Green Lantern, he’s taken these characters from page (or radio) to screen with style and high energy. He rarely returns to a series once he gets it out of the gate, so I wouldn’t expect him to stick around for the long haul, but he’d definitely deliver an engrossing picture with well-developed characters and a kick-ass pace.
Sure, he’s plenty busy with Cowboys and Aliens and Magic Kingdom, but I don’t think it’s totally unreasonable to think that Favreau would give this Indiana Jones-inspired character a great origin story. His films are very well balanced, focusing equally on story, character and spectacle. They combine in the form of highly watchable, exciting movies that are perfect for all audiences. If he could find the time, I think Favreau would nail Uncharted.
I don't know what it is about the Thanksgiving holiday that has people giving thanks, but I figured I might as well join the club. However, instead of being gracious to supportive loved ones or being thankful for the fact that I have any job, let alone an awesome one, I'll give some thanks to the few films and filmmakers that made sci-fi worthwhile in 2010, because, in case you haven't noticed, it's been kind of a crappy year for sci-fi. (Then again, 2009 was a pretty hard act to follow.)
I am thankful for The Book of Eli vicariously bringing my dreams of a Fallout movie to life.
Until someone with a lot more money and influence than I realizes that the Fallout series of games is rife with cinematic potential just waiting to be tapped, the best any of us PIPBoy-loving geeks can hope for are other movies that feel like they could exist within the Fallout universe. And no other post-apoc movie could have made for a better Fallout chapter than the Hughes' brothers' Book of Eli. Not only did they nail the look of a pervasive and stunningly destitute future, but they filled it with gorgeous bloodshed and situational humor-- and that is exactly what Fallout represents to me: a straight-faced sitcom set in the wastelands. Sure, it's not strictly a comedy, but it's got a great sense of humor about the end of the world all the same, and I love that about it.
I am thankful for Vincenzo Natali being such a weirdo.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Splice got shafted. The marketing campaign hung it out to dry as a paint-by-numbers Species-knockoff, when in reality it's a genre-bending creature feature that makes some bold decisions. Unfortunately, everyone who groaned at the trailers for being too Species-like but still saw the movie anyway hated it because it wasn't actually what they were expecting. It sucks that that crippled the movie at the box office, but I still love knowing that Splice disgusted and confused people with equal measure, and there just aren't enough filmmakers these days, at least in the sci-fi genre, who are willing to do that.
I am thankful for Jonah Hex failing at the box office.
If I'm sad that Splice flailed around like a slippery eel with audiences, I'm at least relieved that people treated Jonah Hex like it was the bloated corpse of a whale that the eels slithered out of. It's such a slapped-together, creatively disparate movie that it would have physically pained me had it succeed where Splice failed. Thankfully, it didn't. Though both were box office disappointments, Vincenzo Natali's bizarro creature feature managed to rake in a cool $7M more than Jimmy Hayward's goofy superhero flick, so hopefully that at least tells some suits at Warner Bros. that had they kept the original Crank duo (who are similarly weird filmmakers as Natali), maybe their movie wouldn't have been so dull.
I am thankful for Inception.
Inception arrived with such emboldened fanfare that it was met with a not unsurprising air of derision by those who are eager to say that Christopher Nolan is overrated no matter what he does. But screw that noise. Nolan made an original, big-budget, high-concept sci-fi flick with a tremendous cast and a fistful of indelible moments -- and I'm thankful for that.
I am thankful for Jon Favreau, Neill Blomkamp and Duncan Jones being such geeks.
Sure, 2010 was kind of a lackluster year for sci-fi, but at least Favreau, Blomkamp and Jones are giving us a number of reasons to geek out about what 2011 has in store...
On the Favreau front, we've got a movie called freakin' Cowboys & Aliens that, judging from the trailer, looks to take everything about itself seriously. Blomkamp may not have a film, at least that we know about, on the docket for 2011, but he's making new waves on the Internet with what looks to be the beginning of a series of viral videos -- and as much as I'd love to see a new movie from the guy who made District 9, I'm perfectly happy to watch him get back to his short-film roots. And then there's Duncan Jones, whose new film Source Code looks to be a pocket-protector-wearing dorkfest, and I mean that in the most loving way possible. The trailer makes it out to be two parts Deja Vu, one part Groundhog Day and one part Quantum Leap, which I think we can all agree is a pretty nerdy brew, and I am all for sci-fi flicks that don't give a damn about being macho.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Proving that everything “old” can be new again 17 Again opens in 1989 where star basketball player Mike O’Donnell turns his back on a college scholarship deciding instead to marry his girlfriend Scarlet when she reveals they are suddenly expecting a baby. Cut to 20 years later Mike’s marriage and job are floundering when he is physically transformed back into his 17-year-old self although his mind and sensibilities still remain that of a decidedly square thirtysomething dude. With the help of his nerdy-turned-billionaire best childhood buddy Ned he gets himself enrolled in the same school his own teenage kids now attend. Can he help them avert the same kinds of mistakes now that he (sorta) has a second chance to change?
WHO’S IN IT?
Zac Efron (High School Musical) shoots and scores in a breakout starring role. He shows he’s got the comic chops to believably pull off the way-out-there premise of being a 37-year-old trapped in a 17-year-old’s body. Matthew Perry (Friends) does a nice job bookending the movie as the older Mike but it’s Efron’s show all the way. Thomas Lennon follows up his hilarious supporting antics as the spurned man-date in I Love You Man with some equally amusing work as Mike’s friend Ned while Leslie Mann plays the estranged wife in style. As Mike’s kids who unknowingly become high school buds with their own father newcomer Sterling Knight and Michelle Trachtenberg get enough screen time to shine. Melora Hardin (The Office) is also quite funny as the school principal that lovelorn Ned keeps stalking.
Although the premise of the adult/kid switcheroo has been done to death director Burr Steers and writer Jason Filardi take it one step further a la It's a Wonderful Life or Damn Yankees by letting their main character regain his youth for the chance to see what his life would be like if he could live it another way. This fanciful premise makes this “teen” comedy one that adults will probably enjoy even more.
The filmmakers sometimes have a tendency to go over the top particularly in the "Star Wars fight sequence" when the newly transformed Mike confronts old friend Ned with the news and a laser battle erupts (!). Another scene where 17-year-old Mike is seduced by his own unwitting daughter may be funny but it veers a little too far into creepy territory.
DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR?
If you like 17 Again try renting 18 Again in which 81-year-old George Burns switches places with his grandson. Or how about Big Vice Versa Like Father Like Son or either version of Freaky Friday? And who said there are no original ideas in Hollywood ...
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
A no-brainer — the "Zac Pack" will be out in force on opening day.