I thought it was just about a strong he-man. I didn’t realize it was quite a revolutionary story too. The thing about the Jesus legend is it’s all about getting into a heaven outside earth. The Hercules legend is about finding, in a sense, heaven on earth by growing to your highest fulfillment.
—Timothy Dalton, Associated Press
A madness seized him!
—Linus (Sean Astin), Hercules
“The mark of Zeus is on you, Hera worshipper!” Damn! The hand-to-hand battle that opens Hallmark’s three-hour Hercules includes all the usual excitements of the title character’s era—a ship on a rowdy sea, thunder and lightning, men in sandals and skirts. Slicing an opponent, angry Amphitryon (Timothy Dalton) makes the above assertion, and apparently it means something momentous—for the afflicted is soon washed onto shore where a crew of ladies in masks seems wholly determined to make him their sacrifice to Hera.
The ladies set in on their victim with knives, the man looks horrified, and then everyone stops: the fellow (according to narration by a knife-wielder, as network tv isn’t about to show what she’s describing). He’s male and female, he’s both! Hermaphrodite!” That the leader of this crew is the priestess Alcmene (Elizabeth Perkins), wife to Amphitryon, means there’s some colluding going on, but at this point, some three minutes into the movie, all you can tell is that Perkins is badly miscast. Damn. Well, she makes the best of it. Amid the thunder and the rising chorus, she looks down into the camera that approximates the victim’s point of view, and makes what amounts to an executive decision: you can’t let him live because he’s seen the Hera crew, and you can’t kill him because he’s not precisely and wholly a foul man. And so she cuts off whatever genitals were mannish and cuts his eyes, making Zeus mad and producing the blind seer Tiresias (Kim Coates).
The first result is a stormy-nighttime rape by Zeus disguised as Amphitryon. The second is the child, Hercules, who is born with a twin, such that Amphitryon’s vow to kill the child at birth is dicey right off—only one child is Zeus’, the other is his own. Determined to find out which is the legit son, Alcmene and her maid trundle the infants off to a spooky forest where a monstrous bird-dragon-human hybrid with a voice approximating Gollum-meets-Minnie-Mouse identifies the god-child as Hercules, then allows that killing him will bring the wrath of Zeus on the doer. Though both Amphitryon and Alcmene want him dead, neither can act: when they find Hercules saving his brother from snakes in their cribs, they both take deep breaths and give up. The kid will grow up.
As teens, Hercules (Jamie Croft, who grows up to be Paul Telfer) and brother Iphicles (André de Vanny, into Luke Ford) argue and spar, until Hercules accidentally bashes music teacher Linus (Sean Astin, still in tights) hard enough to horrify the humans who surround him. Banished to the mountains (with fake-dad’s final word to the wise, that he’s actually the spawn of Zeus), Hercules hags out with Linus and the lovely nymph Deianeira (Leelee Sobieski), who looks stunning while bathing in a sunlit lake and shooting arrows at boars, and considerably less so when a CGI-ed Hind of Ceryneia happens by so she can clamber aboard and ride off into the woods. This, along with several other digital instances—the multi-headed hydra-thing, the man-eating mares of Diomedes—suggests that the film’s multi-millions were not spent on effects.
Neither is it likely that much went into the script. Though Hercules spends soft-focus, firelit moments with Deianeira and rousing action scenes being cheered on by Sam, er, I mean Linus. When Deianeira later suggests that her adopted “foundling,” like all things in nature, needs the male and the female… the balance,” Hercules isn’t so swift to notice that she’s attempting to seduce him (then again, he might be too dazzled by her literally golden tan, which makes her rather alarmingly shiny). Though Hercules means well, his mother, his brother, and his father, all inspire the wrath and greed of others, who turn on Hercules. Driven temporarily insane by a potion, he murders his children, believing them to be demons (hey, their faces look very distorted in the wife-angle lens).
Though he attempts to kill himself following this awesome crime, he’s stopped—lit up by lightning from dad, actually, then doused by rain—and then sentenced by cocky King Eurystheus (Kristian Schmid) and his ambitious wife Megara (Leeanna Walsman) to complete 12 seemingly impossible labors in order to win his own freedom. The film follows his struggle to finish these feats for his oppressors, though without—as he announces in a big fat speech for appreciative onlookers—“their pettiness, their wantonness, their cruelty, their savagery, their vanity, their injustice.” He swears that he will not worship anything but the beauty of the worlds and the sky, “all that is great in the gods.” His efforts make him quite the righteous the embodiment of what Greeks called “pathos,” that is, suffering virtuously and eventually achieving, in his special half-god way, immortality.
The labors are colorful on paper, somewhat less than thrilling in execution. He slays harpies (the sight of one’s bloody head makes that bad ex-wife Megara puke up her apple), brings back the Erymanthian boar alive, cleans King Augeas’ stables, captures the Cretan Bull, retrieves the belt of Hippolyte (for which he has to go through the mighty Amazons), and comes up against the giant Antaeus (Tyler Mane)—all difficult but variously redundant here. Hercules means to do right—to accomplish his assigned ends, to please his mother, to salvage his son Hyllus’ (Trent Sullivan) future, but the problem, according to Hercules, is that puny humans (including, at least for a spell, twin brother Iphicles, who calls him a “muck-brained, bumbling ape,” pretty lively language for are this movie) are fixed on his undoing, in order to pretend their own superiority.
Though mom Alcmene points out that this is a war between Hera and Zeus (and she should know), their worshippers tend to treat it like their own war, and so they can’t imagine reconciling. While Hercules is rife with disappointments—including feeble philosophizing and shabby acting—Linus is easily its highlight. Casting himself as Hercules’ bard and companion, the wannabe poet narrates their adventures with the sort of warmth and wit that Astin brought to his role in the Lord of the Rings franchise. While he’s technically a little taller here, he’s also tagging along. Deeds can inspire, he insists. “An imperfect man can do great deed, and a great man imperfect ones.” Alas, doubled imperfect here.