When it opened in cinemas in the US, HERCULES got the box office stuffing kicked out of it by LUCY - Scarlett Johansson could take Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who knew? The success of one over the other illustrated the power of trailers. The concept of LUCY was easy to convey; director Brett Ratner’s HERCULES was a different proposition. It is, in point of fact, a film that looks squarely at the power of myth and reputation, how you can use it to get work and how easily you can fall out of favour. We learn, for example, that Hercules’ Achilles heel (so to speak) is a slanderous accusation. The film is, significantly, more than this. HERCULES, adapted by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos from Steve Moore’s comic book, looks at what it means to be on the right side of history, within the confines of the swords and sandal, or, if you prefer, tunics and treachery genre.
But, hang on, you say. I’ve seen the trailer and clips. HERCULES just doesn’t look cool. The fight scenes are PG-13 versions of battles in 300, minus the slow motion spilling of blood, copious swearing and nudity. There are no fantastical creatures to charm the kids. The unfamiliar – and occasionally difficult to pronounce - names of the supporting characters don’t help. You’ll recognise the actor but you won’t be able to recall the role.
This doesn’t matter. The tone is set early on when the legend of Hercules, reportedly the son of Zeus, King of the Gods, and a mortal woman, who was given twelve labours – and his name – to appease Hera, Zeus’ irate wife, is reported by his young nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). ‘What a load of crap,’ says a character, before Hercules and his crew rescue the young man from a spike in his posterior. Why a spike in the rectum? Because, to quote Alan Rickman in ROBIN HOOD – PRINCE OF THIEVES, it hurts more!
The Hercules of this movie is a widower. His wife and child were killed, with our hero leaving Athens under a cloud accused of their murder after a night out drinking. It was the three headed dog, Cerberus, rather than the hair of the dog, that done it. Fortunately, Hercules’ crew – seer Amphiaraus (Ian MacShane), brother in arms (and Terence stamp lookalike) Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), mad warrior tormented by nightmares, Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) and Amazon archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) believe in him, getting him mercenary gigs and cabaret.
Hercules vows to defend one more group of repressed people before he retires the coast to open up his own gym – or plant some olives. His band heads to Thrace where they are hired to train farmers and tradesmen to defend the land for a horde of scantily clad men holding scythes. Their employer is Lord Cotys (John Hurt) who knows nothing of the art of war, having no access to video games. He promises Hercules his weight in gold, which would normally be an excuse for the so-called Demi God to head for an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Dwayne Johnson doesn’t really make films where he has a love interest, mainly because he looks so complete. His body seems to say, hey, look at my curves. Here, he does express sympathy for a pretty single mother Ergenia (Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, who has signed up for Christopher McQuarrie’s MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 5) and her young son, Arius (Isaac Andrews, last seen in BLACKWOOD).
Hercules teaches the tradesmen of Thrace the importance of the wall. Stand firm with shields locked together and the enemy will not penetrate you with their swords and arrows. Could they not crush their column with a big boulder? Be silent! At any rate, Ratner’s answer to THE HATEFUL EIGHT successfully defeats their enemy and indeed and another, more tastefully dressed army, who seem from a distance like centaurs (should have gone to Ocular Telescope Savers). Hercules even swears, not ‘Medusa’s tickle’, or ‘Underpants of Hades’ but something more conventional and PG-13.
At this point, things get a little dark. Joseph Fiennes turns up as King Eurystheus, the man who gave Hercules a bad rap. Is Hercules hero or mercenary? And will the three headed dog turn up to haunt him? These questions are answered in generic style.
I’m sure you’re thinking that HERCULES is no match for GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY in the cool stakes. It doesn’t even have a spectacularly good use of the song, ‘Cherrybomb’. I agree that Ratner could have introduced contemporary songs in the manner of A KNIGHT’S TALE. But the conventional orchestral score doesn’t harm it.
Given the complexities of our feelings about what Israel has done to defend itself, HERCULES’ complex look at perspectives in warfare is timely. Arguably, it could have been more sophisticated and showed the limits of Hercules’ power. The final sequence does require an act of superhuman strength – but not, I’m pleased to report, to stay awake.
John Hurt gives a conventional wise-old-lord performance right until his final line, which is a laugh out loud detonation of impotent rage. Ian MacShane provides more conventional comic relief as the seer who has witnessed his own death, ‘in a place that looks like hell’ – well, that could be anywhere – as does Rufus Sewell as Hercules’ more cynical right hand man. One criticism that Ratner cannot avoid is that HERCULES is a very white movie. There is nothing for the African American demographic. Hell, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY had green and blue people, more shades than a STAR WARS milkshake. This could be one reason why moviegoers passed on HERCULES.
Reviewed at Cineworld O2, North Greenwich, London, Screen 1, 14:15 screening, Wednesday 13 August 2014