Against Hercules, Box-Office Disaster 47 Ronin Is the More Winning Flop

The Greek myth movie follows Keanu Reeves' (not so bad) samurai drama into a black hole of epic underachievers

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This weekend, as most moviegoers flocked to the Navy SEAL true-war drama Lone Survivor, a few souls searched for military bravado by traveling to an antique land: mythical Greece, site of The Legend of Hercules. A stately parade of high sentiments, steroidal machismo and human-deity interbreeding, Renny Harlin’s movie fills all the requirements for the dumping ground of January releases. The only point of interest for industry garbologists is Hercules‘ kinship to the big box-office disaster of December 2013: 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves and directed by Carl Rinsch.

Both movies are remakes or reboots of tales that have inspired close to a hundred movies. Based on the 1702 revolt of samurai to avenge the humiliation of their master, 47 Ronin begat films by some of Japan‘s most honored directors (Kenji Mizoguchi in 1941, Hiroshi Inagaki in 1962, Kon Ichikawa in 1994). Of the 70 or more Hercules movies found on the Internet Movie Database, the earliest is the 1915 Italian film Marvelous Maciste. The most famous is Pietro Francisci’s 1958 Hercules, starring Montana muscleman Steve Reeves, whose worldwide success spurred Italy to produce a score of sword-and-sandal imitations in the next decade. Arnold Schwarzenegger, under the pseudonym “Arnold Strong,” made his movie debut in the 1969 Hercules in New York; and in 1997 Disney turned out a zany, shaggy-gods-story musical-cartoon version.

(READ: Corliss’s review of the Disney Hercules by subscribing to TIME)

In structure, 47 Ronin and The Legend of Hercules are nearly identical. A tyrant rules a kingdom that must be liberated by a “half-breed”: Kai (Keanu Reeves), born of American and Japanese parents, or Hercules (Kellan Lutz), whose regal mother Alcmene was seduced by Zeus. In each film, the tyrant exiles the hero and his contingent; in each, the hero must risk his life against gigantic rivals in public smackdowns of surpassing weirdness; they play like a mix of WWF and WTF. And in each, there’s a girl worth winning and dying for.

There’s no reason these time-tested properties couldn’t find renewed popularity in the 21st century; but fate said “fuhgeddaboudit.” Filmed in 2011, 47 Ronin ran up a mighty tab of $175 million — the highest all-time budget for a director’s debut feature — and waited more than two years to be released, allowing Universal Pictures to write down the cost, quarter by financial quarter. After a month in theaters here and abroad, the picture has earned about half its production cost ($87 million); breaking even is a fool’s dream. The Legend of Hercules was not so pricey an endeavor (a $70 million budget), but has little hope of finding a large audience; it earned a puny $8.6 million on its first weekend of domestic release.

One big difference between the two movies: 47 Ronin isn’t godawful. Adding witches, ghosts and other fantasy elements to the historical record, the movie is faithful to its source in its grave, stately tone and its honoring of the ethic of loyalty that guided the warriors toward a noble death. The choreography of battle sequences is complex and well mounted, the production design sumptuous, the acting of the mostly Japanese cast shrewd and passionate. Reeves, playing a character invented by screenwriters Chris Morgan (four of the Fast & Furious films) and Hossein Amini (who helped write Snow White and the Huntsman), projects an occidental modernism that may seem out of place; at one point he replaces his trademark “Whoa” to a relieved “Whew!” But that’s O.K.: Kai is an outsider, the moviegoer’s surrogate who learns the way of the samurai and dedicates his life to it. In all, the movie didn’t deserve the derision that greeted it.

(READ: TIME’s 1934 review of a Nazi play based on The 47 Ronin)
The Legend of Hercules does. Harlin exhausts his cinematic ingenuity with the very first scene: a vigorous series of tracking shots from the shore of Argos, across beaches and fields and up to the King’s castle, where the Theban General Amphitryon (Scott Adkins) challenges him to a fight for possession of the kingdom. The battle scenes, which deploy a million 3-D arrows into the audience, occasionally shows the combatants in slo-mo, like the autopsy of a ballet or an NFL instant replay. Because Hercules was made to receive a PG-13 rating, these scenes are wanting in blood and zest; the picture plays like the airplane-friendly version of the movie it wanted to be.

Devised as an “origins” movie, Hercules dramatizes the making of a hero, from the impregnating of Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) by Zeus — lots of wind and ruffled bedsheets — to his sibling rivalry with sneaky half-brother Iphicles (Liam Garrison). Already you see other borrowings: from the story of Jesus, son of God and man, and from the Thor movies, which also pitted a blondish slab of beefcake against a dark, scheming and jealous half-brother. But Marvel did it way better. So did the New Testament.

(SEE: Mary Pols’s Top 10 Worst Moves of 2013)

The supporting actors, most of them British, do their best to impart heft to their roles. But Lutz, who played Edward Cullen’s adopted brother Emmett in the Twilight Saga movies, is as far from their performance style as Reeves was from his Japanese colleagues. To their Masterpiece Theatre, he is North Dakota community theater. No rival in glamour and glower to Keanu Reeves — or, for that matter, Steve Reeves — Lutz is around to provide eye candy. Rock candy, actually, considering that his huge chest looks more like a plastic bosom. No enemy arrow could pierce the breastplate of this Hercules.

Harlin, whom IMDb describes as “the most successful Finnish film director in the history of Hollywood” (and who, pray tell, would be the second most successful?), has come a long way down from his helming of the early ’90s Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, each of which earned about a quarter-billion dollars worldwide, back when that was real money. Those two hits gave Harlin an attack of Action Director Hubris: his next film, Cutthroat Island, was one of movie history’s legendary bombs ($98 million budget, $10 million global gross).  He rebounded, at least as a visual storyteller, with The Long Kiss Goodnight, from a sharp script by Shane Black (Iron Man Three), and pumped a few good scares into The Deep Blue Sea in 1999. That ended the century and, pretty much, Harlan’s reputation as a profitmaker.

(READ: Corliss on Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight)

Unfortunately, there’s no retirement home for aging directors of 20th-century blockbusters. Spending lavishly long past his box-office prime, Harlin threw another $94 million down the sump hole that was Driven (2001). His last movie, 5 Days of War in 2011, managed a total revenue of $17,479. Seventeen thousand.

Whatever mojo Harlin once had as a sculptor of movie violence, he can’t find it here. Less awful than simply inert, The Legend of Hercules is an un-movie. By July 24, the opening date of the “real” Hercules movie directed by Brett Ratner and starring Dwayne Johnson, this January reject should be neither a myth nor a memory. And in the battle of the epics flop with 47 Ronin, Harlan’s Legend comes up about 46 ronin short.