Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

SCHWARZENEGGER SWEEPS: Hercules in New York (1969)

As a young boy in Austria, Arnold Schwarzenegger was inspired by the “Hercules” films of Steve Reeves and Reg Park, fostering an interest in bodybuilding and a wish to, one day, play the Greek hero. At only 22 years old, Arnold got that wish. Park, in particular, was a close friend and personal mentor of Schwarzenegger. When the script for “Hercules in New York” crossed whatever the equivalent of Arnold’s desk was in the late sixties, Reg Brown was the one that talked him into taking the part. Alternatively known as “Hercules Goes Bananas,” it was the bodybuilder’s first film. It’s also one that he would quickly come to regret. The movie is mostly forgotten today. When it’s remembered at all, it’s as a punchline, the embarrassing beginning of an action icon’s career.

After living on Mount Olympus for thousands of years, Hercules has grown bored of being a god. He begs his father to let him visit Earth. At first, Zeus refuses but after listening to him whine for a while, dad zaps his son down to New York City. Once in the Big Apple, Hercules quickly has a series of misadventures. He befriends a pretzel salesman, gets into shenanigans with the locals, performs ridiculous feats of strength, meets a mythology professor, and romances the man’s daughter. The residents of Olympus conspire to get Hercules back while the demi-god also crosses paths with some gangsters.

Still in his early twenties and already a four-time Mr. Universe winner, “Hercules in New York” is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s notorious debut role. Because of his ridiculous last name, he was credited as “Arnold Strong.” Because of his ridiculous accent, his performance was dubbed when the film was first released. The DVD restores Arnold’s original voice. During this viewing, I sometimes wished I was watching the dubbed version instead. Arnold is incredibly stiff, visibly bored and obviously uncomfortable throughout most of the film. About the only time he seems relaxed is when he takes his shirt off and poses. Considering his only experience at the time was as a bodybuilder, this isn’t surprising. His accent is indeed frequently indecipherable, the star mumbling his words and slurring his dialogue. Occasionally, you see the briefest glimmer of the humor and charisma that would make Schwarzenegger a huge star, when he’s throwing a discus or flirting with his female co-star. Mostly, this is Arnold the Superstar in his embryo phase, totally unformed, unpolished, and undisciplined.

The movie’s production values are miniscule. Mt. Olympus, as displayed here, seems to be the front lawn of some local millionaire's mansion. There’s a few scattered topiaries, a veranda or two. As far as the realm of the gods go, it’s not the most impressive sight. A handful of bored looking actors lounge about in white togas. Zeus wears a fake beard and carries a small, metal lightening bolt. The movie barely has a plot. The tiny bit of story the script provides revolves around Zeus threatening to send Nemesis, goddess of vengeance, down to Earth. This barely comes into play. He also threatens to banish Hercules to Hades’ realm. Hades shows up, dresses as a foppish dandy, talks to some gangsters, and then vanishes. This subplot is especially baffling, basically padding out the screenplay. Mercury attempts to talk Hercules back but he refuses, another needless story step. Most of these plots are motivated by Juno, Zeus’ wife who is perpetually hateful of Hercules. Now, any Greek mythology nerds reading this will notice something wrong with that sentence. Yes, “Hercules in New York” freely mixes Greek and Roman names. This bothers me far more then it should. 

“Hercules in New York” is supposed to a comedy, I think. There’s some signs that these events are supposed to be humorous. When descending from Mt. Olympus, Hercules/Arnold waves at an old woman on an airplane, which made me chuckle. Mostly, the movie is a fish-out-of-water comedy. Hercules clashes with the locals, not understanding that he has to pay for a cab ride or can’t just lift a guy into the air for little to no reason. He frequently references being a legendary figure, name-dropping the other gods. Those around him either respond with complete misunderstanding or total bafflement. None of these moments present laughs. The film is done in such a flat manner that it barely registers that these are jokes at all. “Hercules in New York” is only 92 minutes long but it feels waaaaay longer then that. It is one of the most laugh-free “comedies” I’ve ever seen.

Okay, but how does it fare as an “action” film? Not much better. The direction is weirdly shaky at times, many scenes shot in a first-person perspective. Arnold wrestles some guys on a dock, tossing them around. The plot has Hercules entering a career as a pro-wrestler. Bizarrely, there are no actual wrestling sequences anywhere in the movie. The only time Hercules' athleticism becomes important is during a weight-lifting event at the very end. There’s a chariot ride through the streets of New York, a moment that was mildly diverting enough to make the poster. The climax is a brief tussle in some sort of factory between Arnie and a handful of gangsters, concluding with him pushing over some large barrels. The most delirious moment in “Hercules in New York,” the only time it rises from “tedious bad” to “unintentionally funny bad,” is when Hercules wrestles an escaped bear. However, the bear is played by a man in the most unconvincing bear suit I’ve ever seen. I honestly thought it was a gorilla suit at first, that’s how bad it is.

The second star of “Hercules In New York” is Arnold Stang as Pretzie, the pretzel salesman the demi-god befriends. Stang was apparently a Borsch Belt comedic actor of some notoriety that I have absolutely no familiarity with. He strikes me as a slightly kookier, less funny Don Knots. Anyway, Stang does he best to bounce comedy off Arnold, who is amazingly unresponsive. The script frequently forgets about Stang’s character, its focus shifting to other characters. After Hercules returns to Olympus, Stang begins to miss the guy. Amusingly, a voice that does not even remotely sound like Arnold comes over the radio, claiming to be Hercules, assuring Stang that they can be together whenever they want. Ooookay. The rest of the cast is as flat and forgettable as anything else in the film, though I sort of liked Deborah Loomis as Helen, Hercules’ love interest. “Return of the Living Dead’s” James Karen plays her dad, by the way.

There’s not a whole lot to say about “Hercules in New York.” It’s not funny, thus failing as a comedy. It features no exciting action, thus failing as an action film. Since Arnold is so obviously a beginner, a massive man of muscles with zero on-screen charisma, it’s not even very interesting as an Arnold movie. It’s mostly just a weird footnote in the guy’s career, an unglamorous minor stop on a road to far more notable, wider success. Considering Stallone got his start in porn, I guess it could have been worst. [3/10]

[X] Performs Ridiculous Feat(s) of Strength
[] Says, “I’ll be back.”
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[] Unnecessarily Violent Opponent Dispatch
[] Wields A Big Gun or Sword With One Arm

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