One of the great strengths of THE LEGEND OF HERCULES lies in the story origins and bringing in Sean Hood and Daniel Giat as screenwriters, tapping into Hood’s experience with mythology and reimagination with films like “Conan the Barbarian” (2011). The other is having Renny Harlin direct. The mythology of Hercules is a centuries old favorite and one of the most enduring legends. Hollywood has long ago embraced its wonder as it provides ample fuel for fantasy and visual mastery of technology as it advances. But one aspect of the Hercules story that has always been overlooked (because it's not sexy enough from an action standpoint) is Hercules' backstory and his birth.
Queen Alcmene is a good woman, a kind woman, a tortured woman. Her husband is King Amphitryon. A vengeful king and vengeful man, he is murderous and tyrannical to both his people and his wife. Desperate to help her people, Alcmene prays to the gods for help. Her prays are answered in the form a child; a child fathered by Zeus himself. Always suspicious of the child’s birth, Amphitryon nevertheless raises him as his own, but always shows favor to his other son, Iphicles, over Hercules. Favoritism rears more than ugly head when it comes to Hercules and love for as a means to hurt and destroy Hercules, Amphitryon promises Iphicles the hand of Hebe who is deeply in love with Hercules. Attempting to run away with Hebe, Hercules is captured by his father and sent into battle to die. Walking into a trap, Hercules manages to survive together with fellow warrior Sotiris who vows brotherhood and allegiance to Hercules for life. Determined to win back Hebe and save his people from Amphitryon, Hercules and Sotiris plan their own revenge, which takes on even greater meaning with the death of Alcmene at the hand of Amphitryon. And it with her death that the secret of Hercules’ birthright comes to light, setting the stage for Hercules to claim his true birthright.
No stranger to the world of the gods having played Poseidon in “Immortals”, Kellan Lutz is not only a handsome fit as Hercules, but finds that delicate balance of "right meets might and acting with the heart", finding both the immortal and mortal within he who would be HERCULES. It's nice to see an emotional progression within the character, something I wasn't certain Lutz could achieve. He surprised me. But what I appreciate most in this performance is the growth in him as an actor. He emotes, he captures and elicits differential emotion between the various onscreen relationships. And he nails the action flawlessly.
As the vicious, vindictive, jealous and brutal King Amphitryon, Scott Adkins wows and becomes a true leading man. He commands the screen with word, emotion and physical presence. With complete control of the scene and screen, it is impossible to take your eyes from him. His words, vocal inflection and intonation rivals that of any Shakespearean actor He explodes with an intensity by words and action that is mesmerizing. Applause, Applause, Applause!
Johnathon Schaech is deliciously malevolent as Amphitryon’s right hand Tarak, exuding intimidating confidence with every move, every look. And again, chameleonic in look and accent. New to me is Liam Garrigan. Infusing Iphicles with a wormy smarmy persona, Garrigan is a perfect wannabe for Adkins' King, and perfect foil for Hercules. The casting contrast in personality and physical stature between Garrigan and Lutz serves the story well.
Roxanne McKee is an actress who is made for period pieces - no matter what the period. She is as strong here as the Queen as she is in “Game of Thrones.” The icy delivery of dialogue when going toe-to-toe with Adkins is as powerful as the Queen's heart is cold to the King. McKee does a beautiful job at showing tenderness towards Hercules and indifferent disdain to the King. A joy to see Rade Serbedzija reteam with Harlin as well. As Chiron, we see a soft, tenderness that is welcoming, like that of a kindly grandfather, and provides a balance to the brutality of the father-son battles.
Can't say enough about the men from Down Under and Liam McIntyre does them proud. As anyone who's seen him as Spartacus knows, McIntyre captures the essence of the period well and raises the bar with performance. He does the same here as Sotiris, imbuing him with palpable unquestioning loyalty and blind faith to Hercules. McIntyre brings a great emotional calm to tense situations, adds a grounding sensibility. And his chemistry with Kellan Lutz feels true and unbreakable. I genuinely felt they were brothers-in-arms that translated to brothers-for-life.
With THE LEGEND OF HERCULES, it’s easy to see Renny's love for myth and the Greek myths as a whole. As the visuals unfold, it is clear he taps in to the little boy within himself, capturing the wide-eyed imagination of what he envisioned as a boy growing up reading the HERCULES stories. It is both enchanting and powerful to see this emotional point of view visually come forth on the screen. The battle sequences are as powerful and commanding as any I've ever seen done and the use of not only 3D but slo-mo is mind-boggling. We are "in" the battle. The "gladiator" battle in the arena rivals those staged and lensed by DeMille in terms of spectacle, grandeur and intensity (and does give a visual nod to Disney's ‘John Carter”, “Spartacus”, “King of Kings”, etc.) HERCULES is replete with great cinematic and literary history touchstones that I just adore. Beyond stunning are some of the “herculean” tasks performed, and none is more glorious than the creation of a lightening lariat from a sword which is then swung by Hercules through a temple courtyard. By far, my favorite wide-eyed wonder, mouth agape sequence VFX.
Technically masterful with the blend of 3D and slo-mo, Harlin incorporates use of phantom 3D cameras which then puts a completely different spin on execution of stunts. For the extensive amount of battle choreography and wire work - not to mention the phantom 3D cameras - stunt coordinator Rowley Irlam is the best in the biz. These are not easy stunts to choreograph and execute with regular 2D lensing, let alone 3D and slo-mo. There is an intricacy of design and execution when viewed in the context of spears, swords and leather gussets flying amongst heavy wire work. And the wire work is stunning. Stunt execution and choreography is stunning. And KUDOS to all the boys - Adkins, Lutz, McIntyre - for doing as much of their own stunts as possible. With the slo-mo and number of close and midshots it's easy to see they aren't faking and doubles aren't doing all the heavy lifting. Impressive is the use of the 3D in non-battle sequences as it metaphorically heightens the mythology in and of itself.
Bottom line - Performances are solid. Battles are beyond cool. 3D flaming arrows shooting off the screen into the audience dazzle! Lightening bolt lariat is spectacular!!!! Wire work is stunning.
THE LEGEND OF HERCULES - a Herculean experience.
THE NUT JOB
Feeling a little nutty? Go see THE NUT JOB. While overall entertaining and a sure crowd-pleaser to the younger set, with THE NUT JOB, some elements of the film are chestnuty warm and tasty, roasted to perfection, while others prove to be a tough nut to crack. The result is a mixed bag of nuts that, unfortunately, may prove to be more peanut than the meatier walnut or pecan.
Based on writer/director Peter Lepeniotis’ animated short “Surly Squirrel” and co-written by Lorne Cameron, THE NUT JOB fights itself trying to make up its mind whether to be a “Tom & Jerry” cartoon or a classic film noir gangster heist, but in the process still manages to deliver great political subtext hidden in the guise of some of the most adorable animated woodland creatures on screen and their own Orwellesque societal struggle in Liberty Park. And oh yeah, there’s lot of slapstick cartoon comedy and Wile E. Coyote explosions and shenanigans that are truly laugh out loud funny.
Surly is the bane of everyone’s existence in Oakton’s Liberty Park. Never a team player, everything is always about him. With winter approaching, food storage levels in the Big Oak food silo are dangerously low, with little to be found within the park itself. Knowing he must provide for his animals, park leader Raccoon pushes all the little residents to try harder, forage harder, dig deeper to find food. Of course, Surly refuses to help, opting to go his own way with his only friend, a rat named Buddy. But in the course of his antics involving a certain nut vendor from Maury’s Nuts, he destroys the Big Oak and all of the food on hand.
Banished from the park, Surly endeavors to find Maury’s Nuts and squirrel away everything he can find for himself. But smarter than the average squirrel Andie is hot on Surly’s trail and also learns of the nut shop. A front for a mobster and his gang who are using the shop as cover for a bank heist next door, Surly comes up with a plan - to pull off his own heist. Of the nuts. Unable to pull off the plan with just Buddy, and banished from Liberty Park with no allies to call on, Surly makes a deal with Andie to join forces and split the haul.
As Surly and Andie move ahead with their heist with the narcissistic and arrogant fellow squirrel Grayson puffing out his chest in pompous arrogance as opposed to really helping, Mole and the groundhog Bruisers lend a hand with the tunneling. In the meantime, mob boss King and his minions, Fingers, Lucky and Knuckles are doing their own tunneling, while trying to eliminate what they think is an invasion of rats in the basement. Joining in the fray is King’s dog Precious who plays turncoat, coming to the aid of Surly. But what happens when the animals learn that Raccoon and his henchbird, Cardinal (who bears a striking resemblance to Hitler), are not who they appear to be and are pulling their own con job. Mirroring Raccoon is King who also plans to double-cross his team.
Set in the fall of 1959, the noir-themed heist is captured in character and tone, not to mention a background palette of animation that mimics the look and tone of the era as well as the much of the flat animation styling of the day. Set against that is vibrant, 21st century eye-popping richness with color and life in both Liberty Park and the animals themselves. While each style and look is beautiful and telling unto itself, put together, there is an uncomfortableness of “one of these things doesn’t belong.” Where art director Ian Hastings and the Toonbox animation team truly soar is with the cute creature creation and the specific individual characters, embedding within each traits and features that not only capture the elements of the furry and feathered, but the individual characteristics of each character. Most notable and the real standout among the four-footed is Precious, as Precious is a perfect example of capturing the human expressionism and incorporating it into the character, thanks in large part to the voice talents of Maya Rudolph.
Starting with Rudolph, the voice talents in THE NUT JOB are exemplary. As Precious, Rudolph is pure joy and fun. The animation and her vocal inflection is perfectly melded. Not only do you easily envision Rudolph turning her back and butt up and being enthusiastically lickalicious with every movement and nuance of the animation, but you feel the emotion with every syllable of dialogue. As Surly, Will Arnett provides a grating abrasiveness that bodes well for the selfish squirrel while Liam Neeson is almost regal, yet mysterious, as Raccoon. From start to finish, Neeson’s vocals are textured, creating almost a sense of foreboding. Always a fun voice in animation is that of Gabriel Iglesias who sounds quite bruising as Johnny, one of the Bruiser Brothers. Katherine Heigl gives a sweet determined edge to Andie while Brendan Fraser perfectly captures and gives pompous life to Grayson.
Although we’ve seen similar stories on screen for decades, never have we seen them told from a squirrel’s perspective. The storyline is well plotted and easy to comprehend which will provide something besides cute animals, funny antics and nutty explosions to entertain the kids while adults will pick-up on the subtleties of political subtext. And again, each character is so well defined that kids particularly will easily identify and gravitate towards them. Tugging at the heartstrings are some endearing scenes between Surly and Buddy, adding a little texture to the story.
Appreciated is that director Lepeniotis and his team maintain the POV of a squirrel, particularly in the City, which creates awe and even a caring fear for the animals as they navigate what to them are oversized feet, rocks, rats, trash cans, even scraps of paper. Shown in 3D, the effect is judicious but effective and never moreso than with the Big Oak exploding into flames with virtual corn kernels popping into the air and seemingly into your lap in the audience.
One of the cutest things in THE NUT JOB comes in the end titles with mobsters, moles and squirrels alike dancing with Psy and “Gangnam Style”, obviously incorporated because of Psy’s pitching for pistachios. Unfortunately, the “Gangnam Style” phase has passed making the film feel like it sat on a shelf for too long.
Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t. THE NUT JOB is pretty darn nutty.