Starring: Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes
Directed By: Brett Ratner
Running time: 90 mins
The legend of the mighty Hercules is literally one of the oldest stories in existence and the character has been a staple of genre fiction since time out of mind. Contemporary interpretations of the prince of power have been broad to say the least: Marvel went wacky (Zounds, forsooth, etc,) Kevin Sorbo went smooth and Disney went teen. What have Paramount got in store for their big budget summer blockbuster version of the Lion of Olympus?
In actuality they have taken a rather interesting tact: this version has Hercules as the leader of a group of soldiers of fortune – a sort of Spartan A-team, if you will – who use the legend of his being the son of Zeus and his completion of twelve mighty labours in order to boost their reputation and up their asking price for mercenary jobs.
After an opening sequence which introduces the main characters and tells us their special skills – after all, those toys aren’t going to advertise themselves – Hercules and his group of Thracian Expendables come into he employ of Lord Cotys (John Hurt hamming it up in fantastic fashion,) a seemingly benign ruler who offers him his weight in gold to defeat the rebel army led by Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). What follows is your standard ‘tortured hero with tragic back story and his team take the rag tag army and turn them into a surprisingly fierce fighting unit fare ,with all the usual battles and celebrations, and, a fairly surprising final reel twist.
Tonally the film is sort of all over the place. Director Ratner sometimes seems unsure which he is directing: an all out straight-faced battle epic, or a tongue in cheek parody of one. The visceral nature of the combat ( surprisingly gory for a 12 certificate) hints at the former, whilst all the cheeky banter (Ian Mc Shane in particular is on fine form with his superb comic timing,) and modern day sensibilities suggest the latter. This pleasingly plays into the narrative which is wilfully ambiguous about the main character’s alleged God-hood. The hammy nature of his legendary exploits are played up in order to ‘bamboozle the rubes’, but it’s left to the audience to decide whether or not he is a Demi-God or just a really strong guy in a questionable wig.
The battle sequences are a mixed bag too. They alternate between slightly ropey CGI crowd shots – something completely unacceptable in the age of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes – and sequences in which the battle fodder is made up of actual human extras. It’s during these segments that the film comes into its own, with Brett Ratner making the most of both his leads physical presence (The Rock is a big boy!) and his own maniac flair for directing crowd scenes. The result is combat with a real feeling heft and a sense of jeopardy that was never apparent in similar fare like Troy or Wrath of the Titans.
Advance word of mouth on Hercules has been sparse. The advertising campaign has been unusually subdued, there have been few advance screenings and the majority of internet chatter has focused on Alan Moore and his attempt to get comic fans to boycott based on the post-mortem treatment of Steve Moore (the creator of the comic series on which the film is based).
So it seems that, for better or worse, the success or failure of Hercules depends solely on the public perception of Dwayne Johnson and whether or not his name alone is able to carry a movie. In that regard, at the very least there is little to worry about. After an extended period working in ensemble pieces it seems that The (no longer)Rock has acquired the intangibles to do just that. His central performance – as far as being a physical presence – is highly impressive, and is made all the more impressive when considering that the bulk of this was filmed whilst he recovered from both a hernia and a torn abdomen (suffered during the main event of Wrestlemania 29).
It seems that he is now a proper grown up movie star, in the same way that Charlton Heston or Paul Newman were. The type of star that a studio would have built around in days gone by. Not bad for the former Rocky Miavia.
In the main, Hercules delivers. Fast-paced and action packed, it eschews many of the more sedate (boring) standards of the sword of sandals genre – chiefly standing around delivering exposition and lusting after comely Grecian wenches – and instead replaces them with more contemporary alternatives: wise-cracking and unrelenting action!
Combine this with a solid A-list star at the height of his drawing power as well as a super tight supporting cast who know how to hit their spots, and you have 90-minutes that seem to pass in the blink of an eye.
There seems to be concern in some quarters that Hercules might end up a sacrificial lamb on the alter of box office avarice – given that this summer has yet to see an out and out bomb. Which would be a damn shame as Paramount seem to have the makings of a nice little summer franchise on their hands here.
Verily, this movie doth be awesome summer blockbuster fare!!!
3 out of 5 nerds