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Hercules and Lucy waste their stars

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HERCULES. It's my own fault, really. I should know it's a sucker's bet to hang one's hopes on the promises of a movie trailer. But Hercules and snake-in-the-grass director Brett Ratner tricked me with visions of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson battling a hydra, a giant lion and an even gianter boar. To be fair, those grand spectacles do appear in the movie, but they've come and gone within the first five minutes. What we're left with is a heartbreakingly conventional mercenary-with-a-heart-of-gold-double-cross narrative that even Johnson's winning screen presence cannot salvage.

The bulk of the story takes place after Hercules (Johnson) has completed his legendary 12 labors — thus the brief glimpses of said labors in the opening minutes. Having gathered a squad of hardened assassins, Hercules is a sword for hire, more interested in heavy paydays than truth or justice. As the movie picks up speed, it becomes clear that this is a "one last job" scenario, with the big man intent on retiring to a life of lakeside solitude after getting paid to murder a final few hundred folks. The opportunity arrives in the form of a job offer from embattled Lord Cotys (John Hurt). Cotys sends his daughter to enlist Hercules and Co. to train his people — mostly farmers — as soldiers and defend their city against the horde of Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann).

There are more than a few training montages, of course, followed by the requisite battle scenes wherein the new recruits prove their mettle. Along the way it is revealed that Hercules had a family that was murdered by unseen assailants. Their deaths were pinned on Hercules himself, and he was exiled from Athens. Keen eyes will see that this might come into play again before the end of the movie.

In spite of the undeniable star power of its lead, and a delightful supporting turn from Ian McShane as soothsaying sidekick Amphiaraus, Hercules is only compelling in brief, scattered bursts. The battle sequences are stagier than they are exciting, the photography competent but uninspired and the "twist" at the end merits little more than a shrug. There's also a thread running through the narrative about the politics of mythmaking, the marketing of mercenaries and appearance versus reality, but it becomes little more than a background joke by the end. Even that minor note is an improvement on the rest, which is indistinct sword and sandal boilerplate. PG13. 99m.

LUCY. Speaking of hackneyed, derivative misfires, here's the latest from director Luc Besson. I must have been in a mood this weekend, because here again I was ready to let preconceptions color my experience. This time, I held tight to my affection for some of Besson's earlier stuff, especially Leon: The Professional (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997). They are works of unbridled imagination, complete creations that celebrate the movies' ability to captivate and transport. Experience has proven, though, that the years have sapped some/most/maybe all of Besson's creative juice. I probably should have written him off after last year's tepid The Family, but I didn't. Instead I harbored hope that Scarlett Johansson could bring new life to the Frenchman's late period work. To her credit, Johansson commits fully to the part, and she does indeed add a dimension to the movie. Unfortunately, there's precious little for her to work with in the first place, so I just ended up feeling a little bad for her.

She plays Lucy, a minor wastrel whose idiot boyfriend ropes her into a transaction with some nasty Korean gangsters. In short order, the boyfriend is dead and Lucy has had a kilogram of some new synthetic superdrug implanted in her abdomen for transport. But, of course, the bag breaks open, she absorbs a king-hell dose of the stuff and it enables her to access the unused portion of her brain. She seeks out the apparent foremost expert in the field of neural development, a Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). Together they spew a bunch of dorm-room-acid-trip platitudes about the infinite nature of intelligence. Gradually Lucy develops the ability to control space, matter, other people and time.

Even at an ostensibly breezy 90 minutes, Lucy feels like it rambles on and on and on. It rehashes ideas we've seen better explored in countless books and movies over the years, without adding anything to the discussion. Sure, Johansson as action star is always fun to watch, but she's a better actor than this material. The premise itself is fine, even if it is a retread, but the way Besson handles it is too simplistic, too sophomoric in its intellectual approach and too suddenly violent to be thought provoking or entertaining. R. 90m.

— John J. Bennett

Previews

A MOST WANTED MAN. Missing Philip Seymour Hoffman? See him as an anti-terrorist spymaster pulling strings and laying traps in Hamburg. R. 122m.

GET ON UP. Ha! Biopic of the hardest working man in show business, Mr. James Brown. With Chadwick Boseman and an impressive pompadour as the Godfather of Soul. PG13. 138m.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Marvel is testing us. Chris Pratt plays a thief leading a band of misfits (Zoe Saldana back in alien makeup, a walking tree and yes, a talking raccoon) against a space baddie. PG13. 99m.

WISH I WAS HERE. Zach Braff co-writes, directs and stars in a family comedy/drama about a struggling actor homeschooling his kids and figuring out who he is. With Kate Hudson and Mandy Patinkin. R. 106m.

Continuing

22 JUMP STREET. It ain't broke, and they ain't fixing it. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum return as undercover cops busting a college drug ring in this funny and self-aware comedy. R. 112m.

AMERICA. The trailer for director Dinesh D'Souza's slow-mo history class project asks what the world would be like without America. If he's referring to this film, probably fine. PG13. 103m.

AND SO IT GOES. Seasoned pros on an easy job. Rob Reiner directs Diane Keaton as Interesting Older Woman and Michael Douglas as Difficult Older Man in a romantic comedy. Will Precocious Child bring them together? R. 95m.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Stunning visual effects, intense battles and a story with an emotional authenticity generally unseen in summer blockbusters. PG13. 130m.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2. Transportive animation and talented voice acting create a world worth revisiting and a story with humor and real drama. PG. 102m.

MALEFICENT. An atmospheric, good-looking fantasy with a sharpened Angelina Jolie as the fairytale party crasher from Sleeping Beauty. Heavy on CGI, light on character and not quite scary enough. PG. 98m.

PLANES: FIRE AND RESCUE. Sequel to the animated Cars spin-off, with voice work by Dane Cook and Julie Bowen. PG. 84m.

THE PURGE: ANARCHY. Horror sequel about citizens gone wild in a violent American dystopia. PG13. 130m.

SEX TAPE. A breezy date-night comedy/cautionary tale about marriage and the cloud. With Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel as a couple trying to recapture the thrill and their privacy. R. 95m.

TAMMY. Melissa McCarthy plays a woman on a wild and wooly rock-bottom road trip with her hard-drinking grandmother, played by Susan Sarandon. R. 102m.

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION. Even game actors and fun cameos can't save the planet from the thin plot and epic running time of the latest Michael Bay disaster. He might have tried more dinosaurs. PG13. 165m.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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