In Hercules, the eponymous super-strong warrior (Dwayne Johnson) has become a legend for (supposedly) being the son of Zeus and having performed his twelve labors; nowadays, though, he and his loyal band of fellow mercenaries now spend their time working to earn gold – and not much else. Herc and his buddies are then approached by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), the daughter of Cotys, King of Thrace (John Hurt), who offers a substantial payment. The job? Hercules and his crew will train the King’s army to do battle with a dangerous – and possibly supernatural – warlord named Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann).
However, even as he transforms the Thracian peasants into the deadliest of fighters imaginable, Hercules finds that he cannot escape a tragedy from his past that has come to define him – nor can he ignore his troubled conscience, once he realizes just how far he has fallen from his days of heroism. When a chance for redemption presents itself, it’s left up to Herc to rally his comrades, save the day, and prove once and for all that Hercules the Mighty Hero is more than just a legend.
Hercules is the second Hollywood studio-backed film released in 2014 to feature the titular demigod, arriving on the scene less than seven months after director Renny Harlin’s The Legend of Hercules (starring Kellan Lutz as a young Herc). Johnson’s vehicle, by comparison, never really comes close to being a remarkable re-imagining of the Hercules mythos, but it does a better job of providing charmingly hammy entertainment – thanks primarily to its charismatic leading man and a screenplay that generally knows not to take itself too seriously.
Based loosely on Steve Moore and Cris Bolsin’s graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian War, the script for Hercules was penned by Ryan J. Condal (The Sixth Gun) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, Cinderella III: A Twist in Time). As such, this film ends up often feeling akin to a mashup of ancient mythology with comparatively more contemporary B-movie tropes (cheesy one-liners, action-driven storytelling, and so on), plus a rogues’ gallery of colorful supporting characters and personalities that you might expect to find in a PG-13 Rated Disney feature. Unlike the Mouse House’s Hercules animated musical, however, this movie tries to deconstruct the centuries-old superhero’s legacy and examine larger ideas about how legends are formed and what true heroism means – but has very limited success doing so.
In part, that’s because Hercules – like a handful of other notable Summer 2014 blockbusters – feels as though it has been heavily edited and chopped down, with moments of meaningful character and/or thematic development having been stripped away (but the action sequences maintained), in order to keep a tighter running time. The other major problem is director Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour trilogy, X-Men: The Last Stand), who to his credit, makes sure the film delivers on its promise of epic battle scenarios – as each act of the film contains at least one major fight sequence – but does so with little sense of style or creativity, from a technical perspective.
Ratner and his frequent collaborator, director of photography Dante Spinotti, stage all the sword-clashing, arrow-flying, action in Hercules in a visually clean fashion (read: no handheld camerawork for heightened “realism”), though it often feels as though the film is just marking off items on a checklist from an Epic Moviemaking 101 book (see: Lord of the Rings-esque swooping helicopter shots of the landscapes in Budapest where it was shot) – which is to say, Ratner’s direction is barely passable. On a related note: Hercules was clearly not designed with 3D in mind; save for a handful of pop-out visual gimmicks, there’s not much to be gained from watching the movie in 3D instead of 2D. (You don’t lose anything either, so it really depends on your preferences, when it comes to which format you ought to choose.)
Johnson, as such, is responsible for carrying much of the film on his shoulders – which he does, yak hair beard and all. The Rock’s Hercules isn’t exactly what you would call complex – basically, a disillusioned superhero who’s never gone that dark since his fall from grace – but he is compelling enough and easy to root for. Similarly, Herc’s family of warriors – including the sardonic Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), stern Amazonian warrior Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), and the animalistic Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) – are all pretty much two-dimensional, but the cast members’ likable performances help to make up the difference.
Ian McShane as Amphiaraus, a member of Herc’s band whose seer abilities are rather questionable, ably handles the task of providing both comic relief and necessary exposition/narration, while Reece Ritchie as Herc’s young “cousin” Iolaus, who yearns to be a great warrior, is the only actor outside of Johnson whose character really has an arc in the story. The remainder of the cast is stuck portraying stock archetypes – Rebecca Ferguson’s Ergenia is a damsel in distress, Joseph Fiennes as King Eurystheus (a character from Herc’s past) gives the appearance of a benevolent ruler, and so on – whose motivations are dictated by the demands of the script’s narrative, above all else.
At the end of the day, though, Hercules is mostly geared towards providing the sort of tongue in cheek, lunkheaded summer blockbuster entertainment as, say, Johnson’s previous swords and sandals genre vehicle, The Scorpion King – as well as the Mummy movie franchise that spawned that film – and in that sense, it’s more success than failure. Basically, if the phrase “Brett Ratner’s Hercules starring The Rock” sounds like a fun movie to you, then you’ll get your money’s worth from the film.
Hercules is now playing in 2D and 3D theaters. It is 100 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity.