Hercules, the original superhero, is back on the big screen (yes this is the second film dedicated to him this year). One great thing about these mythological stories, besides, you know, providing insight into a culture’s shared subconscious, is that these characters and stories are BMDC (Before Marvel and DC) so some other studios can have a crack at this caped cashola. The bad thing: besides one catchy/fun animation from Disney, Hercules hasn’t had the best big screen success. So how did they do?
Directed by Brett Ratner with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the title role, this is a Hercules like you’ve never seen before. Unless you’ve seen “Gladiator”, in which case…pretty similar minus some seriousness, add in some team members, and take out the effectiveness of the stirring speech. This Hercules is less demigod, more mortal (or as mortal The Rock can be), craves the simple life, the female leading lady is the daughter of the King scared for the life of her young son – heir to the throne, and there’s even a tragic backstory relating to Hercules’ wife and children.
But I don’t mean for it to sound like this is all old ground, as where the film has diverted from previous Hercules incarnations (and “Gladiator”) is where it is most successful. Having endured his legendary twelve labors, Hercules has his life as a sword-for-hire tested when the King of Thrace and his daughter seek his aid in defeating a tyrannical warlord. The expanded ‘Team Hercules’ helping to carve his ‘legend’ are interesting and fun. Ian McShane as Amphiaraus provides continuous laughs as a seer who keeps predicting his own death, and, though a woman of few words, Norwegian Ingrid Bolso Berdal is very impressive as female warrior Atalanta. Askel Hennie as Tydius is a surprisingly sympathetic more-animal-than-human member of the team. There are no fantastical elements at play, the mythology is adhered to through the team’s own PR person, story teller Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), who is given as much protection during battle as the King and knows how to turn a phrase to make the enemies of Hercules retreat at the mere sight of him. The Rock gives the performance his all, and is magnetic (and often shirtless) as usual, but it is a shame that he doesn’t get to show off his impressive comedic timing as this Hercules is very serious and tortured. When it’s time for stirring Gladiator like speeches in the final battle, the emotional resonance of the character is not quite there and it falls pretty flat.
The action scenes are competent and cinematography familiar. There is no distinct style to the film ala “300” but the production values are high and it seems the studio is invested in making this work. There was an interesting kernel to potentially explore how the birth and expansion of a legend can influence behaviours and change outcomes, but in the end, Hercules goes all superhero anyway. Cue lots of grunting.
“Hercules” will no doubt please its core demographic of teenage boys, but we must almost be at superhero fatigue at this point, and it will be interesting to see if this film can resonate in our current society’s shared subconscious, already defined by masks instead of lion heads… Probably not.