Junkfood Cinema: Hercules in New York

By  · Published on July 2nd, 2010

Junkfood Cinema: Hercules in New York

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; because you’re worth it. This is the internet column that makes all other internet columns look great in their skinny jeans. Every week I dust off the least impressive movies I can find, routinely from my own collection, and as you sit astounded, I have the audacity to talk about how much I love these cinematic disasters. I display some modicum of decency in that I acknowledge the film’s problems as well, but you should all be very concerned by my overall lack of taste. Speaking of taste, and tasty things I suppose, in an effort to solidify this column’s gimmick I pair each week’s film with an appropriate snack food item that will do as much irreparable damage to your teeth and blood pressure as the film does to your impression of me. Today’s film is epic in its terribleness. If you have a heart condition, weak stomach, or all-consuming love for French New Wave please do not read the next few words. Today’s film is none other than Hercules in New York.

What Makes It Bad?

Where to begin, where to begin, oh grand high gravy boat where to begin?! How about the premise? The story revolves around Hercules, the half-man-half-god son of Zeus who lives on celestial Mt. Olympus. One day, in a fit boredom, he demands to be sent to Earth to consort with the mortals. What follows is 80 minutes of events that redefine the word misadventure. The plot is an elaborate farce constructed to provide an easy vehicle for a bodybuilder. It’s not entirely respectable that the inciting action of the entire saga is boredom, but it would be forgivable if the plot got the least bit more complex. Though to be fair, there is wrestling and a weight-lifting competition to heighten the drama and further explore the human condition.

It would be categorically impossible to talk about the failings of Hercules in New York without talking about its star. Arnold Schwarzenegger, though now a consummate politician (there’s actually not a joke there) was, in 1970, a champion bodybuilder and a five time Mr. Universe. So clearly he was cut out to be an actor, right? Well director Arthur Seidelman sure thought so because he gave Arnie his first acting gig. Well no, acting is a bit of a generous description for what Arnold does throughout. He makes an artform out of standing around and appearing not smart while simultaneously demonstrating an infant’s grasp of the English language. He also looks like a bulked up baby with a two dollar haircut and a gap in his front teeth you would need a suspension bridge to get across; all the while women in the film are calling him handsome.

He is the least intelligible hero in the history of American cinema. Arnold was so mind-bogglingly hard to understand that the film was initially dubbed with a far more well-spoken man providing his lines. I, in a recent VHS coup of epic proportions, obtained a release of the film that not only forces the audience to suffer through Arnold’s original dialogue, but proudly boasts it as an incentive to buy it. The best example of why Arnold should never have been given permission to speak during the making of this film comes in a throwaway line near the midway point. When someone questions the power of Hercule’s dad, Herc retorts, “my father is a diet!” At first, I thought I had heard wrong and rewound the tape, but again Arnie utters this perplexing assertion about his father. Then it hits me, the words on the page probably read, “my father is a deity,” and poor Schwarzenegger flubbed it. Seidelman, understanding the film would almost certainly be dubbed and it wouldn’t matter come Monday, left the line alone. Thank God for rereleases!

If Arnold isn’t obnoxious enough for you, and I dare not meet the man to whom that applies, you’ll be happy to know that the writer was kind enough to deliver unto you the world’s most irritating sidekick. His name is Pretzie (so named because he is introduced selling pretzels…and develops no larger defining quality) and he is played by cartoon voice mainstay Arnold Stang. To list Stang’s entire body of animated work would be a lofty endeavor but he is probably best known as Herman the Mouse; constant foible of Katnip Cat. Stang takes milquetoast to staggering new heights before realizing that he is afraid of heights, crying, and wetting his ridiculously high-water pants. I know it isn’t his fault, that he was probably directed to be as meek and whiny as humanly possible, but each and every time he is on screen I just want to murder him.

Why I Love It!

There really is no excusing this film, and I have little defense for it. That being said, I haven’t laughed so hard at so horrendous and effort since the last time I watched Plan Nine from Outer Space. The film’s complete and utter disregard for production value, plot, and performance would surely please the likes of Ed Wood. Take Mt. Olympus for example. Even with the all the great Greek myths I have read I so often forget that the glorious, ethereal home of the gods was nestled in the courtyard of the Days Inn Syracuse. It’s about as heavenly as walking through the lobby of a major corporation’s headquarters, but I guess it satisfied the one criteria for Olympus that the director demanded: it was outdoors? I also love Zeus’ readiness to call on Mercury and Samson to aide Hercules in his time of need. You know Mercury, the Roman name for the Greek god Hermes, and Samson, a hero from Hebrew lore. While we’re constructing this preposterous theological cob salad, why not call upon Thor or Joseph Smith as well.

Say what you want about Arnold, lord knows I just did, his failure is magical. He is just a big, dumb kid who, it is clear, harbored just as many expectations for his career as an actor as would anyone watching the film at the time. He is just having fun with it with no real understanding of why anyone handed him this job in the first place. The fact that he is listed as Arnold Strong in the credits probably effectively curbed any confidence fostered by his starring role. By about the second time he lazily topples a car or reenacts the Sabre Dance with his pectorals, it becomes clear that pretension is absent. I do love that someone found it necessary to have him take on “the mob” because that has to be the most generic go-to villainy in every exploitation flick ever made. What would this type of film be? Pecsploitation? Musclesploitation?

There are scenes in this film that have to be seen in order that you not call me a filthy liar when I recount them. The first would be the scene wherein Hercules wrestles a bear. There is a bear that somehow escapes from the Central Park Zoo and manages to cross paths with Herc on a date. By bear, I of course mean stage hand in an indiscriminate furry suit who has a gait eerily similar to that of a great ape and not at all similar to that of a bear. The fight between them is one-sided and sad, but provides all the entertainment value of your drunk uncle beating up the clown at your fifth birthday party (you know, if you desperately hated clowns at 5). The other scene that prompts a cascade of giggles from my gullet has to be the chariot chase. Hercules finds a chariot, in New York, whose owner is dressed like Tarzan for some wholly unexplained reason, and proceeds to rush through Times Square to rescue his girl. The problem is that it is in no way obscured that the horses are in fact going roughly 1.5 miles per hour in what can only be described as a pleasant prance. Adventure!

The ending of the film is a parade of awful. First, Hercules apparently learns a lesson about blind obedience that is neither founded by the events leading up to it, or a positive message for the six-year-olds for whom this film was clearly created. Then, he manages to communicate with his sad sack sidekick through radio waves, in someone else’s voice mind you, and tell him to always keep Herc in his heart. This would be an endearing little tear-jerk moment if it weren’t an oiled up beef slab talking to a 50-year-old twerp. The icing on this shit cake has to be the final shot. Zeus decides to descend to Earth, having been all-too tempted by the stories Herc tells, and as he’s floating down he passes a 747. The music, which by the way is composed of shitty mandolin nonsense that puts one in the mood to do little more than go to Bucca di Peppo, and his new found jet-black beard replete with curls near his forehead give the impression that Zeus is now a Hasidic Jew. Not that there is anything wrong with converting, it just calls the film’s ecumenical confusion once again into sharp focus.

Junkfood Pairing: Soft Pretzels

In honor of Pretzie, God what a horrid name, I invite you to devour these massive bread twists. Salt ’em up, slather them with mustard, or poor gravy and maple syrup on them in honor of Canada Day! However you enjoy them, remember that the only thing softer than these delicious pretzels is the gelatinous mass hiding inside the rock-hard skull of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.