Because Hollywood apparently likes to do things in pairs we were treated to two Hercules films in 2014 as if the world was clamouring for another sword and sandal epic starring everyone’s favourite familicide, that’s the murdering of one’s family for those not in the know, and shockingly enough this version actually touches on that aspect of the myth, well kind of.
Based on the graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars this version is helmed by director Brett Ratner who is most known for directing the Rush Hour movies and not epic heroic period pieces so I went into this with heavy trepidations. I’ve yet to see any version of Hercules come close to the mythology so I was not expecting much from the guy who kneecapped the X-Men franchise, so colour me surprised when this turned out to be quite entertaining.
The movie begins with a narrator telling us how Hercules (Dwayne Johnson), son of the god Zeus and a mortal woman, tries to stay alive while the goddess Hera wants her husband’s bastard dead. The gods command Hercules to complete Twelve Labors of increasing danger and if he survives them Hera will finally allow him to live in peace. Apparently, Olympian paternity laws are really complex. We then get a brief montage of Hercules fighting the hydra, slaying the Erymanthian Boar and killing the indestructible Nemean lion. Pretty awesome right?
The film then cuts to our narrator (Reece Ritchie) hanging over a spike and being threatened by pirates. What we’ve been hearing is him telling these rogues the story of Hercules in the hopes that fear of this approaching demi-god would cause them to flee to parts unknown. They, of course, laugh at his feeble attempt to scare them off but then, clad in the skin of the Nemean lion, Hercules arrives and slays the pirates. But what’s this? He was not alone, Hercules actually has a posse of heroes on his side and it is with their help that he has achieved so many of his heroic deeds.
I am not a fan of the demystifying of fantasy stories; I just don’t see the need to give us “realistic” versions of King Arthur or the Trojan Wars, it’s like being given a bag of Halloween candy and then being told that all the sugar and sweets have been removed, but that said this movie treats the myth of Hercules as an elaborate propaganda machine used to wage psychological warfare on his enemies, and I must say that is pretty damn clever.
Hercules here is a mercenary and he and his pals are just trying to get enough gold together so that they can retire and live like kings, though Hercules just wants to find peace and quiet to hopefully forget his dark past. His dark past revolves around the time he worked for King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes) and when one horrible night he woke up to find out that he’d brutally murdered his wife and children. Since that ghastly night, he has been haunted by images of himself fighting Cerberus over the corpses of his family.
So when the lovely Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) comes to Herc and friends on behalf of her father Lord Cotys (John Hurt), who will pay their weight in gold for helping them, this seems like a dream come true. The problem is that Lord Cotys is ruling over Thrace, a city torn by civil war and threatened by a tyrannical warlord Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann), who apparently leads an army of centaurs and mind-controlled madmen. All Cotys has left to fight this monster is a bunch of farmers and he wants Hercules to shape them into a fighting force that he can lead against Rhesus and save all of Thrace.
Does Hercules have the time it takes to show these farmers how to fight and learn the importance of The Shield Wall? Does the evil Rhesus actually have magical powers and centaurs on his side? Is Lord Cotys on the up and up or is there treachery in the works? Did Hercules murder his family or was he the victim of an elaborate frame job? All these questions are answered in a rather fun romp led by the ever-charismatic Dwayne Johnson.
Though this movie is a “realistic” version of the Hercules story it still has the Greek strongman throwing a horse through the air with one arm and has him tipping over temples that would have given Samson a hernia. So realistic is being used here in the broadest sense of the word. Most of the time this works because Dwayne Johnson seems to be having so much fun with the part, but still, moments like when we discover that the Hydra was just a bunch of dudes in serpent masks are kind of lame. On the plus side, Hercules has some great character actors on his side as in the case of the seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) and his childhood friend Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) as well as hot Amazon archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), and berserker and man of few words Tydeus (Aksel Hennie).
This movie is leaps and bounds better than The Legend of Hercules, which sadly hit theatres first thus probably muddying the waters and hurting the box office for this one, but now you can catch it on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D and it is well worth your time.
Dwayne Johnson lobbied for the part of Hercules for years and it’s his charismatic screen presence that elevates this above others of its ilk. Though I’m not a fan of “realistic” versions of fantasy stories this one was tons of fun.