By Chuck Francisco
September 04, 2013 Source: Mania.com
Following a rash of weeks which have seen me sequestered away among the dark recesses of various movie houses, a break from the big screen refreshes in concert with the coming fall breeze. Call it summer blockbuster fantastique fatigue. Astride the couch and equipped with fluffy cat accompaniment, my small screen downtime has been chock full of nostalgic 90's television series. Netflix has been kind enough to bestow the practical entirety of all things Star Trek upon instant subscribers, even serving up the Animated Series on plate normally reserved for Gagh. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is currently unavailable due to issues with the universal translator (seriously, it was yanked this past week due to lack of Klingon and Vulcan subtitles). Sandwiched between marathon sessions of Geordi holodeck stalking Leah Brahms and Joe Piscopo mentoring Data in stand up comedy, I've found myself swallowed up by Charybdis' whirlpool to be transported to a time long ago- a time of myth and legend, when the ancient gods where petty and cruel.
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was an hour long sword and sandal adventure produced in New Zealand by Sam Raimi's Renaissance Pictures, incorporating the episodic wandering adventure format most reminiscent of 1950's serial films. There was a veracious hunger for good natured adventures featuring simple, clearly defined morality tales and upstanding heroes. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys filled that retro nostalgic longing while simultaneously looking forward, preaching tolerance and goodness like an apple plucked from the same tree as Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek. Our titular hero, played with world weary patience and affable charm by the talented Kevin Sorbo, would walk from village to village, giving freely of his time, strength, and ability. His compassion knew neither racial, nor geographical bounds, as he would constantly astonish suspicious townsfolk by empathizing with typically vilified demihumans such as the Cyclops or centaurs.
Hercules illuminated the way as a paragon of virtue, continually striving to help and understand others, but the show would never have worked if it lacked raucous action sequences. Viewers, of which there were many (Herc enjoyed enormous worldwide popularity during its run), were weekly treated to Sam Raimi's trademark action style, which grew into maturity during the production of Army of Darkness. Shameless camp stands back to back like Double Dragons, winking away at the camera whilst the arrows fly. The proceedings are infused with lighthearted acrobatic flair and the kind of campy shenanigans typically observed during well choreographed renaissance faire exhibitions. Fights always included comedic beats, winking and nodding at viewers as much as at the traditional tropes.
Through it all that most important element, FUN, is treated as paramount. There was no attempt to disguise the show's true self to better fit in with the cool kids at the lunch table; Hercules: The Legendary Journeys proudly owned up to being more fun than cool. That's something to be lauded in an age where cynical derision is king. Indeed, I often remark that this show, like many of the films showcased on Shock-O-Rama, is purely a product of a specific intersection of the culture it emerged from and the time it was conceived. Reinvented today we would expect an edgy protagonist, imperfect and and mentally unhinged by the death of his family, who broods over a dark land in search of answers, themselves doled out with stingy reticence across a season spanning arc.
During its run Hercules would be teamed with a number of sidekicks. These would be pure mortals with flaws like ours, held up as a mirror to better accentuate the hero's example and teach us that we could always be better if we try. Salmoneus, played by the hilarious Robert Trebor, stood as an example of untempered lust for money, or greed. Much more frequently Hercules would be joined by Iolaus, a stalwart companion and adept warrior whose pride and egotism would often land into trouble which would require assistance from the big guy. Iolaus was played by New Zealand native Michael Hurst, who also directed episodes of the show, transitioning to that role as a career later on, with episodes of Legend of the Seeker and Spartacus to his credit (and niche cult flick Pumpkinhead: Blood Feud too).
Representingmorals and ideals running opposite to Hercules where a great many villains of the week. These where supplemented by big bads that would frequently pop in as the power behind the fiendish plot. Xena originated as one of these recurring villains; created for a three episode arc, she proved to be so popular that she was spun off into her own, concurrently running series. For a large portion of the The Legendary Journeys, Herc would be pitted against his full god, half brother Ares, played by Kevin Smith (no, not Silent Bob). Depicted as a darkly attired, goatee equipped version of our hero, Ares would continue to antagonize in both shows for many season. Sadly, just as his Hollywood action career was about to launch, Smith suffered a tragic on the set accident and died. A true shame as he was very entertaining; we can now only speculate how high his star might have risen.
Some entertainment only works as a crossroads of time and culture, but in so positioning itself, a nostalgic worm hole is created. As the opening theme for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys reverberates across my ear drums, and the emboldened narrator's booming voice crafts the ground rules, I am harkened back nearly two decades to a time where TV was allowed to be campier, with no venomous criticism leveled for enjoying itself. We are undoubtedly richer for our serious minded modern entertainment, but I would posit that we are simultaneously poorer for the loss of childlike test pattern naivety. I wager that it's been to long since you reconnected with Kevin Sorbo. Fire up Netflix and watch him do battle with his wicked stepmother Hera, in doing so release the seriousness which permeates all the fibers of our hyper connected world. Think of it as meditative nostalgia.
Want to watch something right now? Check the Screaming Streaming section for suggested viewing which is available right now via the magic of the Internets.
Runtime: 94 minutes
Availability: Amazon Prime, Netflix
I'm possessed of the opinion that Robert Rodriguez does practically no wrong by cinema goers. While some would disagree, The Faculty (his body snatching horror invasion film) offers strong evidence to the director's credit. In addition to a solid story, an interesting concept, and strong cinematography, The Faculty boasts a broad cast of then rising stars coupled with prominent B listers. Josh Hartnett, Elijiah Wood, John Stewart, Usher, Robert Patrick, Christopher McDonald, and Clea Duvall are featured, and with Salma Hayek, Famka Janssen, and Bebe Neuwirth all on the staff, this is likely the hottest faculty a teenage guy could dream up outside the realm of adult films. With Machete Kills on the horizon, you'd be apt to take a trip down Rodriguez memory lane. (Bonus: the soundtrack is pretty killer too!)
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.
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