I should start by clarifying which version of the oft-told Hercules story we’re talking about, because it’s not the animated feature from Disney and it’s most assuredly not the banal early 2014 The Legend of Hercules with Kellan Lutz in the title role. I’m talking about the summer release with the always popular muscleman Dwayne Johnson in the title role, as released jointly by Paramount and MGM.
First the perhaps surprising news: I quite liked and enjoyed Hercules, finding it an unexpectedly deep story with a good cast and, of course, lots of great visual effects, even if occasionally they were a bit splatter-y for my tastes. And I’m a long time fan of Dwayne Johnson, though I swear the man gets more bulky and muscular in each film he makes, leading me to wonder what he’s going to look like in another 4-5 years.
The film is based on the Steve Moore & Admira Wijaya graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars and is directed by the always competent Brett Ratner with a production team that looks like it came directly from the set of 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire [my review: 300: Rise of an Empire]. Maybe all these mythological Greek movies just share props and costumes, actually.
The film starts with Hercules serving as a roaming mercenary with a small band of fellow warriors that he’s drawn to his side. He’s survived the twelve labors assigned to him by the Gods (he’s the son of Zeus and a mortal woman) but is still haunted by nightmares of a three headed dog Cerebus and the death of his wife and three young children. What was his involvement in their deaths, though?
His posse include the prophet Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), the thief Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the warrior Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), the archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and the storyteller Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). They’re hired by King Cotys (John Hurt) to go into battle with his decimated troops, led by the fierce Sitacles (Peter Mullan). They’re almost beaten by Rheseus (Tobias Santelmann) and his band of centaurs but rally at the last minute to defeat the enemy, just to return to the palace and find that the situation might not be quite as it was portrayed when Hercules and crew were brought into the war.
There’s more to the story, but what I found most interesting were the underlying themes, most especially how Hercules and his nephew Iolaus had built up the myth of the great hero, while it is left far more ambiguous whether he’s actually a mortal born of mortal parents or whether there is indeed some of the Gods in his bloodline. He is hit, he bleeds, can he be an immortal?
The other theme was loyalty and family. While an action movie cliché by this point (I think it was beaten to death in the Fast & Furious franchise, personally), the contrast of Hercules wracked by self doubt due to the death of his wife and children and the family he’d built around himself, unawares, offered some good dialog to act as a counterpoint to the frequent deaths.
Don’t get your hopes up too much, however. This is not a great movie, but Johnson is always enjoyable on screen and Hercules is one of the better popcorn movies of the summer. Certainly if you have to choose between this and Lucy, pick Herc. You’ll thank me.