All things considered, Hercules, the latest big screen outing for Hollywood’s favorite Greek demigod hero, this one starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, could have turned a whole lot worse than it does. Want proof? Just look back at last January’s utterly awful The Legend of Hercules and just how awry a sword-and-sandal flick built around ol’ Herc can go should become very clear.
But this version, blessed as it is with superior talent in front of and behind the camera, as well as a solid and even occasionally clever script built upon a depiction of Hercules that’s far moodier and grittier than movie audiences might expect, is a far more respectable and enjoyable presentation, and won’t leave you wishing you could get a refund from the box office.
Son of Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene. Slayer of the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra, and the Erymanthian Boar, among other mythical creatures defeated as part of completing the famous Labors. Cursed by his birth to be hated and hounded by Zeus’s jealous queen Hera. Yes, Hercules (Johnson) truly is all these things … or so his storyteller nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) would have everyone believe when he so enthusiastically tells tales of his uncle’s exploits. Iolaus is the youngest member of Hercules’s band of vagabond mercenaries, which also includes thief and blade master Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), seer and counselor Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), gifted archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), and mute berserker Tydeus (Aksel Hennie). They travel the Peloponnese, fighting for gold and further building Hercules’s legend, which all of them had some small hand in helping create in the first place. As for Hercules himself, he views his reputation and the stories surrounding him as useful tools for intimidating enemies and little more. There’s no glory left in the wars he wages and the labors he undertakes — they’re all just a means to help him someday put Greece and the bloody images that haunt his nightmares behind him.
The opportunity for the last lucrative job that might allow that escape comes in the form of Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of Thracian King Cotys (John Hurt), who wishes to hire Hercules to train his conscripted army of farmers and laborers to end an insurrection led by the mysterious rebel Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). According to Cotys’s scouts, Rhesus has an army of savages and centaurs under his sway, dark forces that only an army trained by a son of Zeus might be able to stop. Being themselves weavers of myths and tales to take advantage of superstitions, Herc and his band are skeptical about what they’re really facing, but for the amount of gold Cotys is offering, they figure they can handle whatever is really out there waiting for them.
As you might imagine, things aren’t quite what they seem at first. Before their adventure in Thrace is done Hercules and his friends will find their loyalty to one another tested by enemies old and new, and Hercules himself will have to answer the question he’s always avoided or dismissed: is he really just a sword-for-hire with a larger-than-life reputation built on stories and embellishments? Or is he truly the legendary hero all of Greece believes him to be?
The script by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, based on Radical Comics’ 2008 graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars by Steve Moore, is relatively bereft of the presence of gods and monsters, at least outside of their impact as storytelling and legend-building tools. In that regard, it has much more in common with Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 Trojan War epic Troy, which also relegated the gods to merely icons and the talk of old men and would-be seers, than it does with more recent Greek mythology-based actioners such as Tarsem Singh’s 2011 Immortals and the 2010 Clash of the Titans remake. Is this Hercules on par with Petersen’s vastly underrated film of a decade ago? Certainly not, but they share an approach to emphasizes dialogue and character-driven drama over heavy special effects and monster-fighting, and that’s to this film’s credit. It’s surely this approach in the source material that attracted Johnson to the project in the first place, and keeping that approach in place most likely aided in attracting the notable talent in the supporting cast.
That’s not to say there isn’t lots of action to enjoy here. Director Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour films, X-Men: The Last Stand) deftly stages the film’s many battle scenes so that each hero alongside Hercules gets an opportunity to shine and earn a few cheers. There’s also a good deal of variety in the action set pieces, and that along with the film’s relatively short running time — 98 minutes is almost the length of a movie trailer compared to the length of most mythology-based epics — keeps the proceedings from getting anywhere near monotonous.
That said, it’s a shame that more time and effort wasn’t spent on fleshing out the characters played by those noted and gifted performers. Sure, Rufus Sewell (The Legend of Zorro, Dark City) gets the Nemean Lion’s share of glib one-liners and pithy comebacks, and Ian McShane (HBO’s Deadwood) gets to put his trademark gravelly voice to use as both ominous source of foreshadowing and comic relief, sometimes even in the same scene, and what they get to do works well. But as a whole Herc’s loyal band of mercs gets very little character development. Audiences are more or less told rather than shown why this crew follows Hercules so faithfully, and while Johnson more than capably handles the task of playing charismatic and larger-than-life, it could only have made his friends’ devotion all the more believable by giving a little more heft to the roles played by the ensemble’s strongest performers.
Again, while this Hercules film won’t be setting any new standards within its genre, it’s a fun, entertaining ride that’s firmly on the better end of what’s come down from Hollywood this summer. It may suffer from the fact that there was another Hercules film in theaters just six months ago, but it’s no understatement to say that the gap in quality between that debacle and this film is one of mythic proportions.
Score: 3 out of 5
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan, and John Hurt. Directed by Brett Ratner.
Running Time: 98 minutes
Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity.
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