(Ireland’s Wars will return next week – NFB)
Didn’t we do this film already this year? That really bad piece of claptrap starring a bit player from the Twilight series? Well that was a lower budget, smaller studio flop, presumably produced as fast as possible to get ahead of this bigger budget MGM offering, which has actual star power and a big name directing behind it. The Legend of Hercules didn’t make back its budget and sits at 3% on Rotten Tomatoes. Does Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules out do it?
Loosely based on a graphic novel by Steve Moore, Hercules tells the story of the titular demi-God (Dwayne “Don’t call me ‘The Rock’ anymore” Johnson) and his band of mercenary pals (Rufus Sewall, Ian McShane, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Aksel Hennie and Recce Ritchie) who travel ancient Greece selling their considerable martial services for gold, ignoring their leaders murky past. When the King of Thrace (John Hurt) comes looking for warriors to defend his land from a barbarian horde, it seems like a normal job, but Hercules and company soon find the task is more than they bargained for.
Hercules can say one thing proudly: it knows exactly what it is. It knows it does not have that much license to be clever, to be deep, to wax philosophically on this most famous figure of ancient literature. It knows it is an action movie out to make a quick buck, and revels in that freedom, the freedom to make jokes, have fun and generally depict the sort of crazy mayhem designed to simply put people in seats.
I mean, it tries to put a swerve on the legend, this Hercules being a low born orphan with a great propaganda machine (even if he is still a famous warrior), and that’s genuinely cool and a nice approach that seems to be a commentary on the world of celebrity nowadays, where perception is more important than deeds. But then by the end none of that really matters, since Hercules is performing amazing feats of strength and martial skill with abandon, a demi-God in all but name, any pretence of depth abandoned.
Similarly, there are a few attempts made to give Hercules’ hangers on some back story and sub-plots, but this invariably just involves coming out with their motivations and opinions about Hercules directly, with only a few occasions of actual subtlety. Autolycus is the Han Solo type, Iolaus is the nephew wanting to prove himself, Amphiaraus is the comedy angle crazy guy, Thydeus is the mental Tank and Atalanta is the girl, replete with miniskirt “armour”. They aren’t quite cardboard cut outs in some cases, but they aren’t fully fleshed out either. Just enough is done with them to make sure we don’t dismiss them completely, but I still had to look up their names on Wikipedia for this review.
The plot interweaves itself with Hercules’ bloody past, revolving around the death of his family in mysterious circumstances. These moments are brief and easily resolved when it comes right down it, but I suppose they do add a little something special, showing us a hero of antiquity who isn’t all blood and slaughter all the time.
Of course one of the real weak points is the bad guys. Hercules attempts to pull a double twist on you in regards their identities, but it really won’t take you that long to figure out that maybe certain characters are hiding something, and maybe certain characters from the past might not have been all sweetness and light. In the end, one of the major bad guys gets less than five minutes screentime and the other one, while played by a very distinguished actor, is just sort of lame, especially against the physically imposing image of Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules.
The story winds its way to a fairly basic ending, which promises the possibility of sequels if there is an interest (which there probably is) while doing little to really stick out in the mind. There simply isn’t enough strong character here for that to happen, or any kind of genuine tension or peril in the final moments to make you feel as if you are watching something truly great.
Female characters get fairly short shift in Hercules. You have Atalanta, who is the stereotypical fantasy world girl character, good with a bow but not with wearing period appropriate clothing. And there’s Ergenia, the quasi love interest who’s a little bit better, trying to protect the legacy of her son, but still in no way a complete and deep character.
So, what is the point of a film like Hercules? In reality this kind of script could be applied to any kind of mythical hero, real or fantastical, without much alteration. What we have here is a dime store action film, one designed to give the audience the most fleeting kind of enjoyment before they forget the vast majority of it within five minutes of leaving the theatre. And in creating that kind of experience, Hercules succeeds very well.
Dwayne Johnson is a better actor than some people give him credit for, but it is fair to say that he excels in roles like this over other, more nuanced, material. Hercules has to be a sometimes morose strongman character, and that’s what Johnson brings, with some occasionally very decent moments of emotional expression.
The rest of the cast is more so-so really. John Hurt is good enough to be notable without really doing anything of note, Joseph Fiennes gets so little screentime he might as well have not bothered, Rufus Sewall is slightly endearing as the Han Solo character and Ian McShane is actually rather good as the seer with a death wish. The rest are fairly bland and unmemorable, occupying roles of little depth with little opportunity to actually act at a high level.
The visuals are alright. It’s a typical Brett Ratner movie in style and the CGI is acceptable enough. The 3D is largely superfluous, but the action sequences are well choreographed and presented. The script is fairly simple and brutish in its lack of complexity and the music is acceptable and little else. These production details merit as much attention as was given to them by the filmmakers really, with not even Ian McShane’s distinctive voice doing much for the narration he is supplies with.
Talking themes, Hercules does make a bare effort at covering a few: the expected with things like destiny in the world of ancient stories and slightly unexpected with the emphasis on family. But I think I will just say a few words about image.
Hercules is a film all about image. The whole point of the plot is that Hercules is just a great warrior, and not any kind of God. He has a very good propaganda department in the form of his nephew, who helps to ensure that the right version of his tale is the one that gets out, the kind likely to rally his allies and strike fear in his enemies. There is a commentary there, on modern life and the easily manipulated nature of perception, which is far deeper than anything else Hercules can offer. Yes, Hercules is the kind of warrior capable of throwing horses around (literally) but he seems to be wary of actually embracing the image he has built up for himself fully, perhaps scared of the potential for further harm to the people close to him. The love of the masses helped to ensure the deaths of his own wife and children after all. A popular image is then a two edged sword in Hercules, at once useful and at once a very dangerous thing. Perception has to be managed carefully, so the right image is created. At least Hercules tries to approach that idea, covering ground that other action movies wouldn’t dream of even looking towards.
In the end, Hercules is all right. It has no real pretensions about itself or what it can offer, and serves up a quick, fun, and easily palatable fantasy adventure which is as easy going as it is predictable. It will not be one of the great films on Ratner’s show reel, nor will it carve a place for itself on the consciousness of the film going public. But it knows what it is and delivers what you expect. What more is there to really say?
(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures and Metre-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures).