Every so often, Max Silvestri plunges into the depths of his Netflix queue, resurfacing with reports of the strange things he's found there. These movies are usually terrible, but he writes about them anyway.
What It’s About: The legendary Hercules, son of Zeus, wrestles and flexes better than anybody at Warrior Camp, but Hera has other plans, though those plans do not interfere with the wrestling and the flexing.
My parents bought me a copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths when I was 8 years old. We were on vacation in Florida, and before the trip was through I’d read the illustrated classic three or four times. (I was not an outdoorsman. I was more of an indoorsman.) For years I obsessed over the book. Somehow it managed to turn cautionary tales about savagery and incest into adventure stories fit for adolescents. Even now, 20 years later, it still sits at my mom’s house in two pieces, the binding long broken. Everything I know about Greek mythology I learned from that book, everything except how there is a Kraken and sometimes you’ve got to let it out. That I learned from the trailer for Clash of the Titans.
Hercules makes many appearances in Book of Greek Myths, but none seem to line up with the story told to me in Hercules Unbound! In the film, Hercules frustrates his fellow warriors at warrior training camp with his skill and his arrogance, until his rival Campaneous conspires with the vengeful goddess Hera to sabotage Hercules with poison. In the original myths, Hera was always after Hercules, because Zeus favored him and also screwed a mortal to make him, but I don’t think there was any warrior training camp. And in the story of Nessus, an angry rival managed to kill Hercules with a poisoned shirt. But you’ll have to trust me that nowhere in Hercules Unbound! is there room for any shirts whatsoever, poisoned or not. Nobody wears shirts. And there is very little in the way of pants. There are loincloths, but they are much smaller than the loins they are clothing. They are maybe meant for the loin of something tinier, like a chicken. Do chickens have loins? I guess anything with legs has loins. “I have nipples, Greg, could you milk me?”
Hercules Unbound!, if you have not figured it out, is a homoerotic adventure film. It’s from the 1313 series of B-movies, all directed by David DeCoteau, all featuring jacked guys having “adventures.” While I am not the target audience for these films, I strangely feel like this wasn’t homoerotic enough. In Hercules Unbound! there are lots of dudes and they wrestle and flex and slap each on the backs, but there is not even a suggestion of romance. Kiss already, dudes. Grapple with your mouths, not your arms. Everyone seems frustrated here. I am onboard with women in their underwear, but I could not handle 75 minutes of women in their underwear standing around and posing and doing errands. When I was a teenager, a friend showed me Jenny McCarthy’s Playmate of the Year video, and it was a series of Muzak-soundtracked videos in which Jenny McCarthy wore a sundress and then discovered an old-timey water pump, or an old-timey railroad handcart, and then her sundress fell off. But at least her sundress fell off. The only sex implied by this movie is by its casting, which presumably took place on a couch.
Much of this movie looks like pornography, because it was shot in the backyard of the sort of L.A. coke mansion usually reserved for adult video shoots. This backyard does not suggest the majesty of ancient Greece. There is a pool, and the pool has tiles, which is kind of Mediterranean, and then there is a sculpture fountain of a small naked boy peeing into the pool. Small naked boy sculptures feel a little ancient Greek, but mostly they feel gross. The naked kid pisser is one of the film’s go-to B-roll shots, and at one point the camera lingers on it for about 40 seconds. Next to the pool is a grassy backyard, and it’s not even particularly big. All the training, of which there is a LOT, happens by the side of the pool, or in the backyard. Occasionally the viewer catches glimpses of the gas grill next to the pool, or the cars parked in the distance through the woods behind the house. These do not feel like authentic details.
There are four, and only four, types of visual shots in the movie. First there are still photos of Greek ruins, into which the camera zooms slowly in the style of Ken Burns, and these are meant as establishing shots, so that we know we are in the time of Hercules. It is not clear why the Parthenon and other non-specific Greek landmarks are in ruins in these shots, as Hercules was already a myth when actual Greek people were building said landmarks. Maybe they are meant to be Babylonian ruins, and the director has made the conscious decision to place the life of Hercules in a real-world timeline a thousand years before the peak of Greek civilization. Or maybe this postcard clip art is all the movie could secure rights to.
Then there are many scenes of animated CGI clouds moving quickly. This is when you know the gods (Zeus and Hera, specifically) are looking down on the mortal plane from up high on Olympus. We never see Zeus or Hera; we only hear them. Zeus offers his son Hercules encouragement, and Hera schemes with Capaneous ways to defeat Hercules. The earthbound characters talk with the clouds, and it is confusing, because sometimes Hera will talk to somebody right after Zeus does, and it’s the same clouds the mortals are looking at, but it doesn’t seem clear if Hera and Zeus heard each other.
Zeus is voiced by Lou Ferrigno Jr., which is as close to a “name” as this movie has. It is saying something when Lou Ferrigno’s son is your movie’s biggest star, and he won’t even show his face. (In addition to acting, the young Ferrigno paints; he made this acrylic painting of the Incredible Hulk, a role the actor’s father made famous. In this painting the Incredible Hulk has his hand between his leg in such a way that he appears to have three or four testicles. That is truly an incredible amount of testicles.) Laurene Landon voices Hera, and I’m unfamiliar with her work. Her IMDb bio is something to behold, though. In addition to her “hugely enjoyable movies,” Ms. Landon is an “an award-winning gold medal lyricist who authored rap music for an L.A. Metro Transit Authority video.” Who can forget her performance at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, when she took home the gold medal for Best Lyrics, Metro Transit Authority division? She made her native Canada proud that day.
Much of the action of the movie happens “indoors,” though it is nearly impossible to figure out what doors, or where. Presumably, it’s at the house next to the pool, but every character is shot one at a time in close-up, from the waist up, five inches from a window. We see trees out the window behind each character, and the reflection of other windows, but we don’t see what room they’re in. The camera just cuts back and forth between characters standing and delivering lines to one another, and we have only their sight lines to guess to whom each is speaking, and often times the geometry of the sight lines doesn’t check out. There are a few bold scenes where one character in close-up leaves the “room,” the remaining character looks inches to his left and starts talking to a new character, also in close-up in the exact same spot in front of the window. If this seems hard for me to explain or for you to understand, imagine how difficult watching this film is. Also, no characters ever sit in this movie, not once. Even when Hercules’s best friend, Abderus, is wounded gravely in battle and sent to his bedroom to recover (he holds a small towel to his ribs to show how injured he is), he is still standing. Hercules is relieved his friend feels well enough to stand, though maybe at this point in history no one had invented sitting. Or this movie was based off that improv game “Stand Stand Stand” where one character always has to be standing, another has to be standing, and the last one must be standing.
Finally, there are outdoor training scenes. This Herculean Warrior Training Camp includes and is limited to solo sword practice by the pool, running to the backyard, doing shot put in the backyard, throwing javelin in the backyard, running back to the pool, grappling, and bodybuilding poses. We see every character do every one of these things multiple times. There are literally four multi-minute montages of each character standing on a wall of the pool and posing, shot from a worm’s eye view. And these guys aren’t even good at bodybuilding. They are all ripped, but they pose like you or I would after watching Pumping Iron drunk, where we might kind of remember the thing where you put your balled fists on your hips and then puff out your chest, but we also do a sideways put-up-your-dukes pose like we are the Notre Dame mascot. It’s an obscene amount of bodybuilding, and it’s the only thing in the movie that offended me. If I had paid $30 for just a bodybuilding video, because I was interested in bodybuilding, I would still think this movie had too much bodybuilding. “I am getting more than enough value for my $30. I don’t want to put this company out of business by consuming a gratuitous amount of posing.” Also, Hercules (Geoff Ward) is the shortest actor of the warriors, which seems like an odd choice.
Speaking of odd choices, the villain of the film, Capaneous (Brendan Lamb) has multiple tattoos. I noticed that two of them were Greek letters, and I was briefly impressed by the director’s eye for detail. It turns out the Greek letters are Sigma Nu, and that actor Brendan Lamb, according to his bio, is “an Officer in the Sigma Nu fraternity at the University of North Texas.” I suppose that also explains the tattoo he has on his bicep of the outline of the state of Texas. That is extremely Greek. It does not explain why in all the interior scenes he’s got a stubble, close-cropped hair, and a necklace, and then in the exterior shots, he is clean-shaven with long hair and no necklace. This movie, filled exclusively with 6-foot-tall dudes with no hair on their chest or shirts on their backs, doesn’t give us a fighting chance of telling anybody apart.
What it does give us is an uninterrupted orchestral soundtrack, as if the movie were scored by someone pressing play on an EP entitled “The Best Royalty-Free Strings & Drum Machines” by Blands Zimmer. None of the music is cued to any particular action, not that there is much, so it creates a mesmerizing effect where the first bodybuilding montage is gleeful and upbeat, then the second identical montage is foreboding and suspenseful, while the third has a Calypso vibe. This movie has its own built-in remixes.
I can summarize the plot quickly. Capaneous, with Hera’s help, poisons Hercules, and he gets real tired and bad at warrior training. He loses his powers, but Zeus convinces Hercules he’s still mighty despite the loss. Hercules uses his wits to defeat Capaneous, and Capaneous dies by his own poison. As they fight (by the side of the pool, naturally), I kept hoping that Hercules would throw the grill at Capaneous. It was only a few feet away and I imagine the propane tank would do serious damage to Capaneous’s sandaled feet. Instead, Hercules slaps his shoulders a bunch. He then asks if he can stay on longer at Warrior Training Camp, though we’ve just spent 70 minutes watching how you learn nothing at this camp. The plot resolved, the film courageously spends the final 10 minutes on another posing montage, though this one, despite reusing previous footage, has a noticeable sense of triumph and closure about it.
When You Should Watch This Movie: If you forgot to spend all semester reading The Histories by Herodotus in ancient Greek and you need to catch up on what “really” happened real fast. This movie is basically a Howard Zinn–style People’s History.