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THE LEGEND OF HERCULES

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Brawny Greek hero Hercules might be a remarkably powerful fellow in legend, but he’s never shown much cinematic punch in the movies. First came the amusingly awful Italian pseudo-epics with Steve Reeves in the late fifties and early sixties, followed—after dozens of appearances in schlocky beefcake Euro-cheapies in their aftermath—by the even worse Lou Ferrigno embarrassments of the 1980s. And that’s not even counting the unintentionally hilarious “Hercules in New York” of 1970, in which the young Arnold Schwarzenegger (billed as Arnold Strong) was actually outacted by Arnold Stang. True, the animated Disney musical of 1997 had some charm, and the Kevin Sorbo TV series had its moments, but both of them gave the poor guy a tongue-in-cheek twist.

Not so “The Legend of Hercules,” in which hunky Kellan Lutz, of the “Twilight” series, dons the muscular Hellene’s sandals. An “origins” tale that owes less to classical mythology than to current comic book and super-hero conventions and played with an earnestness that’s positively deadly, this unholy mash-up of “300” and “Gladiator” manages to include only one of Hercules’ famous labors—the duel with the Nemean lion, and that as a throwaway—but seems to drag on for an eternity.

The one aspect of the ancient mythology that the script retains is that Hercules is the son of Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) by the god Zeus. But from there on all is cobbled together from other sources. His birth infuriates Alcmene’s husband King Amphitryon of Tiryns (Scott Adkins), a brutal tyrant who’s first shown conquering Argos by defeating its ruler in single combat. The king passes on his hatred of the boy, who’s named Alcides, to his older son, the cruel and cowardly Iphicles (Liam Garrigan), for whom Amphitryon arranges a marriage with Princess Hebe of Crete (Gaia Weiss) despite the fact that Hercules loves her—a passion she reciprocates.

To get rid of the unwanted Alcides, Amphitryon sends him, along with general Sotiris (Liam McIntyre) and a battalion of men, to Egypt, where an ambush awaits that’s supposed to kill him but instead wipes out rest of the company while leaving the two of them alive. They find themselves enslaved as gladiators, first in literally underground games in Egypt and then in Sicily (which, in fact, would not historically be colonized by Greeks until nearly half a millennium after 1200BC, when this story is supposedly set) before they’re brought back to Greece. There Hercules wins his freedom by defeating the six greatest champions from the entire peninsula in one fell swoop. Then he undertakes a rebellion against Amphitryon which, incidentally, will also free Hebe from imminent marriage to Iphicles. His victory ultimately depends on his willingness to finally accept Zeus as his father—as well as daddy’s lightning power added to his sword, which will allow him to vanquish an entire army with some supposedly cool CGI sparkly effects.

All this silliness is presented by director Renny Harlin, in yet another step along his career decline, with a distinct lack of panache but lots of intrusive slow-motion and freeze-frames in the frequent action sequences. It certainly doesn’t help that absolutely none of the picture’s physical backdrop looks remotely real; everything—mountains, buildings, interiors—is CGI-based, so that the film resembles a succession of painted cartoon panels, though ones poorly rendered by the dimming effect of 3D. The actors are authentic human beings implanted in the settings via green screen technology, of course, but it’s hard to tell that from the performances, which with one exception—McIntyre, who actually brings some emotional shading to Sotiris—are uniformly terrible, though in different ways. On the one hand are Lutz and Weiss, whose clumsy poses turn them into expressionless marionettes and whose delivery of the puerile dialogue is hilariously flat (Weiss in particular sounds badly dubbed). At the other extreme are Adkins and Garrigan, who chew the phony-looking scenery so strenuously that they come across like silent-movie villains. Then there’s Rade Serbedzija, who lurks about as aged royal advisor Chiron and mumbles his dialogue in an accent so thick that it makes Lutz sound almost normal.

It’s difficult to assess the contributions of the technical crew in a picture like this, which depends so heavily on the effects team. Suffice it to say that cinematographer Sam McCurdy, though hobbled by a 3D process that might allow projectiles to be hurled at the audience but darkens and smudges the images , seems to have done a reasonably good job, and Sonoo Mishra’s costumes only occasionally appear ridiculous. The score by Tuomas Kantelinen is predictably thunderous but forgettable.

Hercules will get another chance to shine on screen later this year when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays him in Brett Ratner’s big-budget take on the character. MGM and Paramount, however, have every right to be concerned that this stinker might doom any hope for a franchise before their picture arrives in mid-summer.

COUNSELOR, THE

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The studio did an exceptional job of keeping this film—directed by Ridley Scott from an original script by novelist Cormac McCarthy—under wraps until opening day. Now that they’ve screened it, the reason for the secrecy becomes all too apparent. “The Counselor” is terrible–nasty, ultra-violent and borderline incoherent.

The plot has to do with an elaborate heist of a Mexican cartel’s shipment of drugs into the U.S. via a specially-reconfigured fuel truck. Three men are behind the scheme to steal the truck—the eponymous lawyer, whose name is never given, presumably to make him Everyman (Michael Fassbender); a flashy drug-dealing entrepreneur named Reiner (Javier Bardem); and a smooth middleman, Westray (Brad Pitt). It’s never made entirely clear how the plan to hijack the shipment is supposed to work, but it also involves a speed-loving motorcyclist who happens to be the son of one of the lawyer’s clients, the imprisoned Ruth (Rosie Perez). And the profits are meant to be plowed into a new nightclub Reiner and the lawyer are opening up.

Of course the whole business goes awry, apparently because of the intervention of some others—government agents, for all I know—who kill the motorcyclist and take the truck. They in turn are soon waylaid by members of the cartel posing as cops, but the cartel heads finger the lawyer, Reiner and Westray as guilty parties and target them for execution. Also in their crosshairs is the lawyer’s new wife, pretty Laura (Penelope Cruz), while lurking in the background is Reiner’s cynical, self-serving mistress Malkina (Cameron Diaz)—along with their pet cheetahs.

About all one can say of McCarthy’s plot is that it’s intricate without containing anything remotely surprising. Setting aside the murkiness about the precise details of who does what and why (even though in the end there’s a reveal about who’s been manipulating things that itself comes as no shocker), the final thrust of the narrative merely involves the various participants being tracked down by the cartel for elimination. The process follows Chekov’s famous dictum about the gun in the first act—though in this case the devices aren’t just firearms but a particularly nasty form of strangulation and a snuff movie—but while this gives Scott the chance to demonstrate his expertise in staging and filming chases (something editor Pietro Scalia aids him in), it doesn’t generate much excitement. In fact, the gruesomeness brings a greater degree of revulsion.

McCarthy’s script does feature the occasional sharp phrase and amusing digression, but they’re far fewer than you’d expect from a writer of his reputation, and in the last act he turns instead to grandiose passages about life, death and destiny that sound like the literary affectations they are. One, a late-night conversation between the lawyer and a barman in an otherwise deserted saloon, is mercifully brief, but another—a telephone call he has with the cartel chieftain—turns into a vaguely existentialist monologue for Ruben Blade that’s as pretentious as it is interminable.

Meanwhile the cast try their best, but even people this talented need something to work with. Fassbender, who’s been so impressive elsewhere, is as anonymous as his character here; you could mistake him for any nondescript journeyman actor, and his effort to invest the protagonist with authentic emotion are embarrassing. Bardem is more watchable, simply because he’s flamboyant and boasts a hairdo as spiky as the Moe Howard one he wore in “No Country for Old Men” wasn’t. But Pitt seems just to be going through the motions, Cruz is utterly wasted, and Diaz is so intent on trying to simultaneously look sultry and exude malice that the coupling of semi-nude flouncing about and intense face-scrunching makes for a noxious combination. (She also must try to put across an idiotic scene in which, though no Catholic, she decides to go to confession just to nonplus the priest with her frankness.) There are flashy but ultimately vacuous cameos from Bruno Ganz, Dean Norris (of “Under the Dome”) and an uncredited John Leguizamo.

As usual with Scott’s films, the technical side of things is first-rate, with elegant cinematography by Dariusz Wolski that uses the varied locations to fine effect and an appropriately brazen production design by Arthur Max. Daniel Pemberton’s score, unfortunately, is nothing special.

But though some of “The Counselor” is visually striking, the overall effect of the picture is far from beautiful. One of the grisliest closing sequences shows a corpse being unceremoniously deposited in a heap of refuse by a bulldozer. It’s possible to interpret the treatment of that body as a metaphor for McCarthy and Scott’s contemptuous attitude toward the audience. But it might be more to the point to suggest that their movie deserves a similar fate.