Among the notable names of the 1960s Italian sword-and-sandal scene was Steve Reeves, who played Hercules in two movies familiar to MST3K fans. I was delighted last week to discover a movie on Netflix Instant—Duel of the Titans—that not only stars Steve Reeves but also Gordon Brown (whom you might remember as the awkwardly-named secret agent Bart Fargo from another MSTed Italian '60s flick, Danger! Death Ray). In Duel of the Titans, they play the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, respectively—and while all the ingredients are there for another baffling, disjointed Hercules Unchained-esque spectacle, it actually turned out to be pretty good.
For one thing, it was refreshing to see Steve in a role that didn't call on him to just lie around and drink wine for half the movie. He makes a real effort here acting-wise, which is fortunate, because otherwise he might have been overshadowed by Gordon Brown as the increasingly corrupted Remus. The narrative's great strength, and that of Brown's performance, is Remus' slow build to the villainy we all know the story will end with. There's a great volcano scene near the climax, high with melodrama and strange '60s editing, but nevertheless gripping as we wonder just how far Remus is going to go. Who knew Bart Fargo could have such passion?
The other elements these movies usually have going for them is big battle scenes and hot women. As for the latter, Virna Lisi plays Romulus' love interest Julia, and she's quite a looker—scary in a Taylor Swift way, maybe, but at least not scary in an Evil-Queen-from-Any-Given-Herc-Movie way.
However, Duel of the Titans' fight scenes lack the immensity and spectacle of, say, Hercules Unchained—but that's historically accurate, and more to the point, the battles actually make sense and carry narrative significance, rather than obviously being extravagance for the sake of extravagance.
Supporting cast members of note include the Sabine king and father of Julia, all badass subtlety and gravitas, and an ally-flunky of Romulus who looks so much like John McAfee that I almost phoned up the Belizean authorities to report he'd gone back in time. There also seems to be a weird subplot (that never goes anywhere, so don't waste time being confused by it) involving a roughly 13-year-old girl and what might be her (ew) romantic interest. They make a point of dropping the names of these two, so they're probably mythic figures themselves, but you have to be more of a Rome nerd than I am to care. (Kind of like those comic book movies where somebody's like "Hi, my name is Something Improbable-Sounding," and then you never see them again, but everybody else in the audience is all "OOOO.")
During Duel of the Titans' first twenty minutes or so, I found myself wondering why a film that unites Hercules and Bart Fargo never got the treatment back when MST3K was airing. But about halfway through, I realized it's a bit too good, even if there are plenty of great opportunities for riffs. Too bad they never got around to making a sequel (Titans II: Romulus and the Captive Sabine Women).
Star Score: 3 out of 5