When watching Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson brutally slays a Hydra and an impenetrable Lion in the opening of Hercules, you wonder where these strong-men heroes have vanished to. Vin Diesel perhaps, but it seems that Dwayne Johnson is the only man who truly goes toe-to-toe against Arnie and Stallone in their prime.
Combine this unique choice of actor with the adoration of fantasy-set Game of Thrones, and you can connect the dots that justified the green-light of production of this flawed, sword and sandal tale.
What separates Hercules from the fantasy we often see, is how screenwriters Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos (adapting Steve Moore and Admira Wijaya’s Hercules: The Thracian Wars) place our God-like hero in reality. His twelve labours are told as tales to motivate troops to battle, with ambiguity surrounding the truth of his triumphs. Hercules is the leader of a team that, amongst forgettable men and one woman, includes Ian ‘Lovejoy’ McShane who has, comically, seen his own arrow-shot death. Referred to as ‘comrades’, Hercules as the “Son of Zeus” is an image, and he comfortably reveals how his band of merry men support him as much he supports them. This humility separates him from heroes who merely lead and dictate – it is clear that Hercules is not a lone mercenary. The team are sought to fight for the King of Thrace (played with ease by John Hurt) as his lands are infiltrated by a War Lord and his army, known to be a group of centaurs who murder and kill all who stand in their path. Peter Mullan memorably plays a gruff military-man while Joseph Fiennes pops up as a fiendish, smug ruler who our titular hero knows personally.
Within minutes from the start, we see women spilling out of their dresses and gory, bloody battles that establish the sex and violence “sale” that this film seeks to live up to. Director Brett Ratner is known for his forgettable-fluff in cinema. He nearly destroyed the X-Men series with X-Men: The Last Stand and he failed to reignite Eddie Murphy’s career in Tower Heist. Hercules only adds ammo to the relentless attack film-fans will use to discredit his career. This is long, shiny swords and bulging biceps akin to 300, but without the graphic, artistic flair. Amidst the onslaught of violence, there is a story that aches to be told – something about legends being rooted in truth and a neat twist hinting at an anti-capitalist stance as Hercules refuses his payment to protect others and retain his integrity. These intriguing themes are lost in the pouring fire, falling stone-columns and flash-in-your-face horrors that dominate the majority of the action.
Despite quality actors in Peter Mullan and John Hurt, Hercules relies on serviceable dialogue and an over-use of CGI. Something jars, and though Johnson’s charm rises to the challenge and almost erases our memory of The Scorpion King, this by-the-book blockbuster fails to tell a fable of the ages and falls to the pit of Hades.
This review was originally written for Flickering Myth on 23rd July 2014