by Philip Price
Twelve years ago The Rock "arrived" with “The Scorpion King” in full swords and sandals glory. In the summer of 2014 he has returned to that well-worn genre that has lost much of the interest that “Gladiator” garnered for it in 2000. If anyone could bring films based in this type of world or adaptations of the stories in Greek mythology back into the casual movie-goers field of vision it would surely be the reigning king of action flicks, right? Over the past three years Dwayne Johnson has re-vitalized the ‘Fast & Furious’ and ‘G.I. Joe’ franchises while bringing new life to the ‘Journey To...’ movies. In many ways, “Hercules,” was the test of just what Johnson could attract and handle on his own with only the significance of brand recognition assisting him. Sure, he's had flicks like “Snitch” and “Faster” that cast him as the sole marquee star, but this was an all-out Summer B-movie with a big budget, sprawling scope and, as the trailers would have you believe, large amounts of CGI fantasy. While I am happy to report that “Hercules” is both varied in scope and is quite expansive while offering genuine thrills it isn't the CGI-heavy bonanza of easy-outs that the trailers advertised and made me cautious in getting too excited for the film. About 20 minutes into the movie I began wondering whether the film would add up to anything more than escapism or if there might be something here, something deeper they were going for. I say the previous sentence not in the line of thought that I think everything necessarily has to be about something, but more in a curious fashion as to if director Brett Ratner would aspire to something more than what was expected. It was with something akin to a sigh of relief that when the credits began to role on this latest incarnation of the Greek demi-God that I felt wholly satisfied. Maybe expectations play a certain role in that, maybe this movie won't hold up after multiple viewings, maybe Johnson needs to stick to strong supporting roles that don't require so much heavy lifting and maybe Ratner shouldn't get the opportunity to do anything outside his wheelhouse again, but for what it is intended to be “Hercules” is good, if not forgettable, fun.
Based on Steve Moore's graphic novel "Hercules: The Thracian War," we are set down in a war torn land where Hercules' nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) tells of the legendary warrior’s twelve labours in which he conquered lions, hydras and boars with skin so thick it was believed to be impenetrable. We look on as Hercules and his team rescue Iolaus from a particularly cringe-inducing fate as each of them show their skills and allegiance as his faithful followers. Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) is said to be able to see the future and more interestingly, his own death. Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) has been by Hercules' side in battle since they were young orphans drafted into the army and who rose to prominence with Hercules after his strength set him apart. Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and Tydeus (Askel Hennie) were both rescued from their villages after enemy warriors destroyed them and Hercules welcomed them with open arms, giving them somewhere to belong when they had nothing. The team work as mercenaries, going from battle to battle earning gold from whoever hired them in hopes that they might soon have enough to disappear and live out the rest of their lives in peace. It is clear Hercules is running from his past, but we don't know why until the princess of Thrace, Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), approaches him on her father’s behalf in hopes he might help them fend off impending invaders. Ergenia offers a pay day they cannot refuse and as our titular hero and his gang make their way to Thrace to find an army they have to train, a ruler with a God complex (John Hurt) and a fight they are manipulated into Hercules is forced to open his eyes to see just how far he has fallen from the man, the hero he once was.
That all may sound rather cheesy, but in all honesty the movie kind of is. There isn't much of a way around cheese when you have Johnson's bright white smile shining through the dirt and grime of his cohorts every time he places the hide of a lion on the top of his head. That said, Johnson knows the limits of his power and he doesn't overreach here by putting an emphasis on the emotional aspects, but simply broods with his massive physicality and lets his face do as little of the work as possible. This results in what we want from a movie like “Hercules”: solid action. The highlight of the above mentioned trailers was a quick shot of rival armies rising out of the ground, their bodies covered in paint and wielding sharp objects that looked extremely threatening. In this sequence in the film we not only get well-documented sword fights and strategic endeavors with an army, but we get sequenced-out little moments that make you wince or drop your jaw in a way that you didn't necessarily know movies could do anymore. That may sound like a huge compliment, but in an age where action is shot in a flurry of handheld motions and is more messy than brutal it is refreshing to see wide shots of people being run over by carriages. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti shoots the battle scenes in an almost “Saving Private Ryan” manner where the debris flies around everywhere as it mixes with ash and seems to be moving at a slower rate than the human characters. Johnson finds entertaining ways to play up his reputation as a God while his storyteller nephew and team members are given plenty of opportunity to shine in their skill-sets. Strangely, it is Sewell and McShane who make the smallest impressions as McShane is mostly relegated to intended comic relief and Sewell plays a role he's played countless times before. It is Hennie as Tydeus who makes the biggest impression, though admittedly it is a showy role requiring zero dialogue and large amounts of sympathy, while Berdal can only be pissed Evangeline Lily's Tauriel showed up seven months before her. The film and Ratner get a big kudos though in the way of getting a performance from John Hurt that wasn't completely phoned in as he totally could have given that.
So, does “Hercules” do anything unexpected with its story? No, not really. Does it dig into the themes of which it so openly discusses? No, though there are ideas and strides towards things such as man not being able to escape his fate, but in the end the film simply chalks the legend of Hercules up to preference rather than destiny. There are no thoughts on how the formalities of war are such that it is sad it ever came to be or the freedom of conscience over material liberation, but it does have Dwayne Johnson throwing a horse so you can look forward to that. The characters in “Hercules” are arguably smarter than the stories conventions as well and as the third act begins to take shape we see that in spades as numerous questions begin to pop-up concerning the logistics of Lord Cotys' (Hurt) plan and how it aligns with King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes), the ruler of Tiryns where Hercules called home and made a family with a wife (Irina Shayk) and three children. There is a push from Cotys to destroy the army of Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann) who are believed to be centaurs, but this diligent goal is only given short-handed reason in order to be back-handed in the final act. Like I said though, there isn't really anything new to expect from a story taken from Greek mythology and so we judge “Hercules” on how fun the ride is and it would be a lie to say this wasn't an enjoyable experience. The climax of the film is pure ‘80s era awesome in that it puts our titular hero in such an unbelievable predicament the only way to overcome it is in fact to perform the unbelievable, which Johnson does as he powerfully screams, "I am HERCULES!" See, it's totally cheesy, but in the moment of that epitome of power and rage there is also a nicely built amount of tension that gives way to somewhat of an emotional peak that is then accompanied by a purely action-fueled climax. Sure, Cotys' army is apparently made up of a bunch of dummies, but they get it right eventually and so does Hercules, who at least gets it right where it counts.