25 July 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Lucy vs. Hercules...or "Herculucy"

Weekends like this is why I cover this ridiculous pop culture landscape each and every week. I love this match up we're faced with this week. Will audiences come out to see an interesting original property by a french director starring Scarlett Johansson in a formative action role or will they see the eighteenth Hercules movie of the year, but perhaps also the most significant? It's this feminine vs. masculine dichotomy of box office interests colliding! Whoopee!!

So let's first talk about Lucy (2014). Luc Besson is the kind of director who I guess I consider myself a fan of, but when I think about it, that's really just because I dug The Fifth Element (1997). Nikita (1990) and Leon the Professional (1994) are probably his other most notable pictures, at least by fans in the states, but he's also been a significant screenwriting influence, making entries with everything from the Transporter series to Liam Neeson's Taken movies. That's all pretty rough, but he also wrote Lockout (2012), a fantastically campy and thrilling escape from space movie starring Guy Pearce. I liked it.

Okay, so based off of The Fifth Element and Lockout I'm pulling for Lucy. That's not a lot to go on. But Besson seems to at least handle sci-fi with that deft hand of camp, absurdity, honesty, and real stake-filled storytelling that I consider really effective and genuine. Lucy looks really interesting to me, but we all (including myself) need to get over the really corny "10% brain use" premise that offers the film its high concept.

See, supposedly Scarlett Johansson ingests this blue shit that allows her to unlock up to 100% of her brain capacity, which apparently leads to her becoming a crazy genetic and psychic-manipulating god that then rampages throughout all the bad dudes in this flick. It's like Limitless (2012) but with less Bradley Cooper and more sci-fi ridiculousness. But the 10% brain thing is such a widely known myth at this point that attempting to ground the film in that kind of science, and then throwing out all natural extending logic to the expansion of said percentage increases, seems to drag down the narrative logic of the film itself. Listen, this is a hurdle I'm facing as well, and as I try to tell myself to just get over that stupidity and enjoy the film for how crazy and fun it looks to be, you should do the same.

But I can't see this doing anything but flopping. We're just in that age! It doesn't really have a throttle on the zeitgeist or any significant wow factor, director, or cast to make it a guaranteed hit. This is all sad to say, but people need a reason to see this, and I just don't think there are a lot of compelling reasons there. I even kind of intend to just slam it on Netflix in a few months. The only way it gains some ground is if word of mouth gets out of that it's actually a good movie, which is perking interest lately with big movies like The Winter Soldier (2014) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). I can see Lucy finding success similar to The Fifth Element - becoming a basic cable staple / guilty pleasure to be enjoyed for the next twenty years. This caused The Fifth Element to contain a good deal of cultural influence, but that was also partly because it was so damned fun. I'm not sure if Besson has fun in him still, outside of Lockout. I'm very curious how audiences both in the short and long term respond to Lucy; its female protagonist, its French-ness, and its insanely stupid high concept.

And in this corner we have Hercules (2014), which is just about as opposite a blockbuster as Lucy as you're going to get. Hercules bristles with testosterone and oozes masculinity in the face of Lucy's distinctly feminine confidence. This has been a ridiculous year for Sword and Sandal epics, which I guess is still chasing what, Gladiator (2000) and 300 (2007)? These were huge game-changers to be sure, but only really in the sense that a ton more films sprouted as pale imitators chasing their initial success. That's how we got drek like Troy (2004) and Alexander (2004) for every Kingdom of Heaven (2005).

And holy shit, after 300, the floodgates really opened for the crappiest crop of movies of all time. This year alone ought to be enough with The Legend of Hercules (2014, I honestly had to look up the title of that one), Pompeii (2014), and 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) all coming out in short order. I also had to look up if Pompeii had actually come out this year, because I honestly forgot whether or not that was this March or last March. This is to say nothing of both lesser fare like Immortals (2011), or more significant but still ultimately derided fare like Clash of the Titans (2010). It's just so unending. The Eagle (2007). Ugh, it's such crap.

Hercules seeks to curb all of this nonsense through one big legitimizing factor: Dwayne The Fucking Rock Johnson. This guy has become an inexplicable yet regular franchise saver. The Rock's career is actually really interesting, because for a while there he seemed like a Ryan Reynolds-type action star - one who was ostensibly pretty popular and recognized but also one who couldn't anchor a big blockbuster to save his life. Yes, The Rundown (2003) remains a spectacular action flick, but it hardly cracked the Box Office, and following that up with Walking Tall (2004), Be Cool (2005), Doom (2005), and Southland Tales (2007) didn't do him any favours. Suddenly, though, the miracle known as Fast Five (2011) happened and just about everyone for some reason attributed its success to the natural pairing of The Rock and Vin Diesel. I mean, c'mon - XXX meets the Scorpion King - it's the dream 2002 match-up of beefcakes.

Now the Rock was the go-to big guy to carry a movie. His 2013 was lovely - Snitch, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Pain & Gain, and Faster Six combined to form an eccentric mix of studio tentpoles (for good and worse), small action flicks, and Michael Bay's best film. The casting of the Rock as Hercules is the second absolute no-brainer of the Summer, after Angelina Jolie as Maleficent. It feels like a role he was born to play and it'll be the major reason to see this movie.

Is there any other reason to see this movie? I haven't heard of James Wood coming in and doing Hades, so probably not. It does promise to be pretty badass, but it also just reeks of Clash of the Titans (2010), although its presumable focus on the Twelve Labours could be pretty awesome. Especially cleaning the Augean Stables. I mean, the Rock, covered in dung, screaming and bellowing with that lion on his head? Cinema can't get better. The film lacks the B-movie feel of many of the horrible Sword and Sandal epics I mentioned earlier, which may also set it apart in a good way. Just the buzz off of The Rock's "12 Labors Diet" alone makes his preparation to get into demi-god shape seem like the most jacked anyone besides Hugh Jackman has ever done for a film. Muscleheads and gymrats ought to flock to theaters.

For some reason I think I just convinced myself I want to see Hercules. I really had no desire to before writing and thinking about it for a second for this piece. What kind of legacy might it have? I suspect it will become the definitive Rock movie, for better or worse. It's by far the biggest budget and highest profile release he's been expected to carry by himself, and like I said before, it's the role he was born to play. There are other problematic aspects, though, such as the controversy with Steve Moore, the creator of the comic it's based on (which is an interesting avenue anyway, because Herc is definitively in the public domain, even if the creators used his work as a jumping off point. Still, not paying the dude while exploiting his name is really really shitty). There is also the troubling issue with critics or prognosticators who are eager to trounce a film's prospects before it's even released or its merits judged. There's always one ultimate Summer whipping boy like The Lone Ranger (2013) or Battleship (2012) and the inherent stupidness, brashness, and unnecessaryness of Hercules seems to make it a prime candidate for that "Box Office Bomb" storyline for the summer.

I'm not about that - I like the potential of both Lucy and Hercules and I'm very curious to watch them duke it out. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will probably win. What are you going to see this weekend? Or six months from now? Or on basic cable three years from now? I want the answer to all three of these questions below!

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