Hercules [1997]

Forget Steve Reeves and all those Italian strongmen who played stiff, humorless versions of the mythic demigod in 1960s Saturday matinee fodder. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (a cluster of 1990s television films followed by a syndicated series) re-imagines and re-introduces Hercules--son of Olympian chief Zeus and an earthbound, mortal mother--as a laidback but focused hero of ordinary folks with extraordinary problems. Played with casual grace and ironic wit by Kevin Sorbo, the new Hercules wanders through an equally entertaining, revisionist view of ancient Greece as, well, charming and accessible--not exactly Homeric. There are gods and monsters aplenty, but if this was the cradle of civilization, well.... This eight-disc volume includes five movie-length adventures, thirteen one-hour episodes, and numerous bonus features. Narratively, the unfolding story finds Herc doing good deeds wherever he's needed, though his backstory is more interesting, including a dubious relationship with his all-powerful dad (a sweet performance by Anthony Quinn)and a tendency to feel the wrath of Zeus's wife, Hera, simply because Hercules is the philandering old man's illegitimate offspring. The movie cycle ends with Herc in a state of domestic bliss; the subsequent, regular series darkens him considerably but then thrusts him repeatedly into adventures with redemptive possibilities. Nifty special effects make one believe once again in centaurs, many-headed serpents, a Minotaur, a Cyclops, and several other fantastic species not included in standard references to Greek myths. The regular or recurring cast include Michael Hurst as Hercules's vain, comic-foil buddy, Iolaus; Tawny Kitaen as the hero's wife; and Lucy Lawless in a pre-Xena role (in Hercules and the Amazon Women) and then as the Warrior Princess herself for multiple episodes. All together, this is a show that turned out to be smarter and funnier than anyone might have expected in the mid-'90s, and which holds up very well today. --Tom Keogh

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