Like a lot of Canadian kids, my first encounter with Hercules was with Adventure Cartoon Productions animated series The Mighty Hercules, which Global ran ad nauseam Saturday mornings well into my high school years. They were simple enough, with Hercules as basically the Ancient Greece Batman, beating up bad guys and taking them to prison on Mount Olympus, which, as it turned out, was as pitifully easy to break out of as Arkham Asylum.
Every couple of years or so, the myth of Hercules gets re-interpreted for a new audience, and in a new way. So far, there’s been two Hercules movies in 2014, the first one came out in January and starred some Twilight beefcake as the son of Zeus, but in the case of Brett Ratner’s Hercules it has the immediate ace in the hole of having Dwayne Johnson as the titular hero. Johnson’s charm and magnetism is a definite advantage to the film, and if the movie he was in was tighter it might actually equal the assets brought by its star. Ratner’s Hercules is a solid B-effort, but it had the potential to be an A.
Based on the graphic novel, Hercules: The Thracian Wars by Steve Moore and Cris Bolsin, this Hercules is more, shall we say, down to Earth. Like Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy, Hercules takes the myth out of the mythology and suggests that Hercules was a product of hype, a carefully constructed legend meant to intimidate the bad guys Herc and his crew might be hired to take out. That’s right, in this legendary journey, Hercules is a) a mercenary, b) got a posse that helps him out, and c) may or may not be the son of Zeus.
Carefully fostered by Hercules’ nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), the legend of the Twelve Labors is a half-truth because in this Mythological Greece there are no hydras, or Amazons, or three-headed dogs. Fortunately, superstition abounds, and the people living in such trying times thirst for a hero who can perform impossible deeds in the face of overwhelming odds. Truthfully though, Hercules, a former soldier in the Athenian army, is only as good as his “Magnificent Six,” which includes Iolaus, his army buddy Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the “Amazonian” Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), the near feral Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), and the prophet/warrior Amphiaraus (Ian McShane).
Like many movie guns-for-hire this Hercules is looking to make one, last, big score and retire to the “barbarian lands,” where no one’s ever heard of Hercules’ heroism or the ghastly rumour that he killed his wife and children. Enter Lord Cotys (John Hurt) who has an offer that Hercules can’t refuse: his weight in gold in exchange for helping the Thracians defeat the warlord Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann) and his allegedly paranormal army of centaurs and demons.
Admittedly, this is an interesting take on the myth, and speaking from a sociological perspective, it plays well into modern cynicism about heroes and just how honest their intentions really are. Ratner, I must admit, does an impressive job at the beginning of the movie, establishing the mythical elements of Hercules and then starting to peel them back to present the “real” version of hero and how, in this film, his story is just that, a story. It’s too bad Ratner doesn’t have the courage of his conviction because as the film goes on, and Hercules is forced to be the mythical hero he’s built himself up to be, that blurred line between reality and fantasy gets blurrier. As the credits roll, you ask yourself “Was he really the son of Zeus?” By that same token, you don’t leave The Usual Suspects saying, “There really is no Keyser Söze?”
Perhaps comparing Hercules to The Usual Suspects is unfair. Comparing Hercules to other recent fantasy films is totally apt though, and though there are a lot of CG effects, including a computer-enhanced beautification of Ancient Greece, there was a simple realism to the way Ratner constructed this world. The filmmaking is simple and straightforward, with no weird color schemes and obnoxious slow motion that can be attributed to recent hits like 300 and The Immortals. If Ratner was restrained by budget, he uses that to his favor, and de-emphasizes the eye candy to make it all the more easier for his cast to shine.
Johnson deserves the, ahem, lion’s share of the credit. As always, he’s extremely likable and Johnson manages to make sure his character’s supposed cynicism doesn’t clip his heroic image. He’s also a great team player and has no problem taking a step back and letting his cohorts get their moment; primary among them is the great McShane whose Amphiaraus is equally good with a quip and an encouraging word. Hurt brings serious gravitas as Cotys, but he’s also shrewd enough to know what movie he’s in. The film also features great finds in Berdal (The Chernobyl Diaries), who’s very believable Amazonian, and Hennie (24: Live Another Day), who never says anything, but definitely has presence.
The film is held back though by playing into the clichés of the genre a little too firmly. I think if you’re trying to break the mould you should go ahead and break it rather than rap on it lightly and shrug your shoulders when it doesn’t fall apart. For instance, must every fantasy film feature beautiful montages of people walking across the countryside? We all love Lord of the Rings, but can’t we just assume that people can get where they’re going without seeing a time-lapse of the journey?
We also fall on the trope that everyone in Ancient Greece was really English even though the cast includes a German (Santelmann), a Norseman (Hennie) and a Swede (Rebecca Ferguson who plays Cotys’ daughter Ergenia.) Also, and not to get into spoilers, but the finale finds our supposedly cynical mercs forced to grow a conscience and be the heroes they were only pretending to be, including the one who perseveres in his cynicism even though all his other comrades come around. I haven’t read the graphic novel, so I don’t know how it differs, but Ratner seems prone to simplify even though he’s supposedly trying to make a more complicated Hercules.
The margin for error as to whether or not Hercules will entertain you is pretty thin. To its credit, unlike recent summer blockbusters, it’s a breezy 98 minutes that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Also, the 3-D is satisfying and not overly distracting, and although the technology isn’t pushed in new directions, it’s the rare 3-D movie where you don’t have to take off the glasses to watch the night scenes with any clarity.
Say what you want about Ratner, but in Johnson you should trust. Like great strongmen before him, Hercules was a role Johnson was born to play, and he does a fairly decent job of making it his own.