Astute moviegoers will recall that Hollywood has already released another theatrical movie starring mythical Greek hero, Hercules this year, that being January’s Kellan Lutz-starring The Legend of Hercules. They’ll no doubt also recall that The Legend of Hercules is a terrible movie.
Fortunately, the Dwayne Johnson-starring Hercules that occupies the Summer months is not terrible. It’s cheesy, dopey and shallow, yes, but at least it’s a good time, and at least Johnson’s usual impenetrable charisma salvages what could have been another cinematic disaster worthy of any Greek tragedy.
Something that the marketing doesn’t tell you however is that this is a more grounded take on the myth of Hercules. The movie is based on Radical Comics’ Hercules graphic novels, specifically Hercules: The Thracian Wars, and that comes with a catch; The mythical elements are entirely removed from the story. Instead, all of Hercules’ myths spawn from psychological warfare, in an effort to bolster Hercules’ reputation as a mighty mercenary.
This is certainly a bold move for such a larger-than-life character, but at least Hercules immediately stands apart in shirking the folklore of the Olympian Gods entirely. If you’re willing to get past the fact that the monsters and gods of Greek myth are sitting this movie out, you still have a fun and reasonably stylish action flick here.
Hopefully you’re merely up for watching Dwayne Johnson bust a lot of heads without divine intervention though.
Johnson’s portrayal of Hercules is not at all consistent with how many would envision the legendary hero, but it still works.
Johnson plays the character as a weary and troubled sellsword, burdened by his own reputation, and simply wanting to live in peace. This spawns the obvious plot device of, “One last job” working for the very wealthy king of Thrace, but Johnson’s gentler and more grounded Hercules is nonetheless evocative in his own way, and still a hero worth rooting for.
Hercules may have been a little bland on his own here, at least in terms of the writing, but thankfully, an upbeat and diverse supporting cast helps to make for a merry and likeable band of heroes. Their personality traits and backstories are equally simple, granted. You have your silent, war-tormented berserker, your tough girl archer who is eager to prove herself better than the boys, the goofy joker (in this case, storyteller) that wants to fight, yet no one takes him seriously, the eccentric prophet who may or may not be right all the time, and the cynical no-nonsense fighter that’s all about the money.
At the very least though, they’re fun to watch. Every character contributes their share of cool moments during the action scenes, and doesn’t just leave all of the work to Hercules himself. This is another interesting way that Hercules sets itself apart from other movies starring the famed demigod; Hercules himself is not necessarily running things. His cohorts in battle get just as much a chance to shine.
On the other side of things, you have warlord villain, Rhesus, who is trying to terrorize Thrace after starting civil war with its king, Lord Cotys. Cotys happens to be played by veteran character actor, John Hurt, and Hurt’s unique combination of bumbling charm and noble majesty makes him a great fit for this character, one who is genuinely helpless without Hercules leading his ragtag army of untrained rural folks.
Truthfully however, none of the other characters matter. Hercules’ murdered family is only seen in silent flashbacks, and given that several scenes showcasing them from the trailers are not present in the final movie, viewers will no doubt get the sense that most of Hercules’ backstory was cut out for want of pacing.
Likewise, the movie tosses in a second villain later on to tie back to Hercules wrapping up his character arc of finding peace after the torment of his family’s death, but given that most of Hercules’ development was left on the cutting room floor, this addition feels rather superfluous, even if it’s coming off of a reasonably solid plot twist.
All things considered though, even if they’re not deep, the cast is at least entertaining. In that sense, Hercules may reek of being a dumb action flick, but at least it will be a dumb action flick that will make undemanding audiences smile.
Removing the mythical elements in Hercules is already a risky gamble, so naturally, the movie appears to play it safe in terms of how it progresses.
The only callbacks to the myth of Hercules come from some CG-laden sequences, showing how the stories have portrayed Hercules’ twelve divine labours, which may or may not have happened. Naturally, these sequences were all over the trailers, creating some rather misleading marketing that fails to mention the movie removing the mythological elements behind Hercules as a demigod. They’re cool, albeit brief sequences, showing the promise for what could have been as Hercules battles against the Lernaean Hydra, the Nemean Lion and Erymanthian Boar, but they sting of being a cruel tease for an awesome, fully mythical movie about Hercules that doesn’t exist.
What we’re left with is a serviceable, but largely generic tale of swords-and-sandals action. The movie revolves around Hercules being hired to train an army for the king of Thrace in order to stop a warlord from ransacking the nation. That’s it.
If all you want is simple-minded action, this works wonderfully. After all, Hercules doesn’t skimp on action. Given the bare-bones nature of the plot however, it’s difficult not to want a little something more if you expect your Hercules movie to be, you know, big.
But, maybe that’s the rub of the plot in Hercules. The movie is trying to attack the perception of the myth, and you could make a case that this includes the myth’s overblown scale. Maybe the story is made intentionally simple, because maybe the man is simpler than the myths would have you believe.
Maybe that’s a steaming load to you, but that’s the story direction that this movie is going with. There’s not a lot to it, and that will turn some people off, but as the old adage goes– Better to do the simple stuff well than the complex stuff poorly.
Director, Brett Ratner hasn’t had much luck dabbling in comic book movies before, if his highly disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand from 2006 is any indication.
Maybe he’s chalking that movie up to a lesson learned, since, like I said, Ratner doesn’t bite off more than he can chew in this case. His Hercules movie is very straightforward, playing to its strengths, and content to be a quick-fix action flick that is difficult to truly call a blockbuster.
With that said, Ratner’s direction is competent, and he does deliver some really cool sequences during the movie’s climax in particular. I won’t spoil them, but they defy the myth-less story by being even cooler simply because this movie portrays Hercules as an ordinary man and not a demigod.
Beyond that, Ratner sets up scenes well, and definitely does a good job of framing the fast and furious action, without things becoming too chaotic or indiscernible. That’s good, because Hercules only occasionally stops to catch its breath, due to the hurried pacing.
For a movie that’s just over an hour-and-a-half long though, Hercules satisfies enough with how well it’s presented. The small scale sometimes feels at odds with the source material, and especially the post-conversion to 3D and IMAX 3D, as if Ratner and the studio had two different ideas as to what kind of movie they wanted, but even if it’s uncomplicated, at least Hercules doesn’t take on more than its director can apparently handle.
The music in Hercules is nothing special. It’s your typical phoned-in action score, and it’s largely understated. Outside of some key battle scenes, you won’t even hear it at all.
As for the soundtrack, that fares a little better. The movie offers particular punch in the battle scenes within the IMAX 3D cut, where swords clang, crushing impacts are felt all the more, and the sound of enemies being cut and stabbed apart sounds with especially squeamish glory.
Again, it’s nothing that hasn’t been done in other swords-and-sandals movies, but at least it does a solid job of sounding the part if you’re paying extra for the enhanced presentation of IMAX, Dolby Atmos, UltraAVX or what have you.
Being a movie that strips out the mythical elements, Hercules is more grounded and almost entirely devoid of special effects. The only exceptions are those teasing CG realizations of some of the monsters that Hercules fought during his rumoured divine labours. They look amazing too! Watching the Nemean Lion leap forward with its golden hide and massive fangs, or the Lernaean Hydra come up from the water with its slew of gnashing heads, is something that fans of Greek myths will find frustratingly fleeting in its raw entertainment value.
For most of the movie however, you’re just getting good old-fashioned stuntwork. This is no doubt good news to film purists who feel that CGI is overused in movies today, but it doesn’t change the fact that Hercules is pulling a bait-and-switch with its marketing. There will no doubt be many people paying for one thing and getting another, and they probably won’t be amused in that regard.
Given the decreased need for special effects, it’s a bit mystifying as to why Hercules needed to be post-converted to 3D and IMAX 3D. You may expect this to be a disaster and a cash grab, but if I’m being honest, the 3D presentation in Hercules is actually pretty good, and definitely among the better 3D jobs in 2014’s Summer movie selection.
I saw Hercules in standard digital 3D to start, but soon after checked out the IMAX 3D cut. I have to say that both of them are pretty sharp too, surprisingly so! You don’t lose all that much by sticking with a regular 3D viewing, since the IMAX 3D conversion is a bit less impressive, but both are presented reasonably well. The 3D bolsters the movie’s scale nicely, adds a lot of hard-hitting immersion to the action scenes, enhances the effects of mythical monsters and bad guys leaping at the camera, and just genuinely sucks you into the movie noticeably more than watching it flat in 2D would.
Perhaps Hercules benefits from being a smaller, more tightly-edited movie than most other high-profile Summer flicks here, because it allows the 3D post-conversion to deliver a more consistent level of quality. If you like 3D movies, I’d definitely recommend watching Hercules in at least standard digital 3D, since that seems to be the way it was meant to be viewed, and it’s explicitly shot to that effect, despite the 3D being post-converted. Watching the movie in 2D will no doubt just have you noticing all of the places that Ratner has clearly shot Hercules to accentuate the 3D effects, and it will likely prove very distracting.
For a movie that could have been visually uninteresting though, Hercules deftly exceeds expectations. Even at its cheesiest, it’s always shot well, and is never difficult on the eyes, especially if you don’t mind taking in the surprisingly effective 3D presentation.
Hercules isn’t all that impressive, but it succeeds as good clean fun for those who enter it with lowered expectations. It’s certainly not worthy of the grand mythology behind its namesake, but it’s a serviceable Summer movie that may not be particularly memorable, though is at least fun to enjoy with a group of your buddies if you just want something simple and undemanding.
Also important to note is that Hercules is a huge improvement over Summit’s The Legend of Hercules from January. Maybe that’s a low bar, but at least those looking for a decent Hercules-starring flick at any point this year can more safely enjoy this one, even if it’s purely about the man and not the myth.
On that note, don’t be fooled by the trailers. Hercules has no actual monsters, no Olympian Gods, no divine labour depiction, and nothing of that sort. It depicts Hercules as an interesting, albeit normal mortal man who has inspired a wealth of tall tales in a superstitious ancient Greece. It’s still not a bad story, but it’s not like most any other story about Hercules that Hollywood in particular has previously spawned, and the excising of the mythical elements does significantly reduce the scale.
Still, if you’re a fan of Dwayne Johnson and/or fun, dopey action flicks, Hercules will amuse you while it lasts. If nothing else, it sure does know how to bust a lot of heads!
- Johnson's usual charisma
- Plenty of fun action
- Surprisingly good 3D
- Dishonest marketing
- Shallow plot
- Teasing labour sequences