By Preston Wilder
Eddie Murphy’s ruined it for me slightly, making it hard to hear the name of a certain Greek demigod without flashbacks to Mama Klump (played by Eddie in drag) shouting “HercuLES! HercuLES!” in The Nutty Professor. Fortunately, Hollywood producers seem immune to such flashbacks, giving us three (3) incarnations of said Greek demigod in the space of a year: The Legend of Hercules (a.k.a. Hercules: The Legend Begins) which came out in February, the Hercules being reviewed here – the most expensive and ambitious of the bunch – and the cheapo Hercules Reborn, about which I know nothing except that it stars WWE star John Hennigan and seems curiously mistitled. Hercules reborn? On this evidence, he never died in the first place.
One thing Hercules and The Legend of Hercules have in common (no idea about Hercules Reborn) is a strange refusal to rely on monsters. The famous ‘Labours’ – notably the Nemean Lion and many-headed Lernaean Hydra – barely appeared in Legend, and only appear here to be exposed as a tall tale. That’s right folks, turns out Hercules (the ever-amiable Dwayne Johnson) is a bit of a hustler, relying not on superhuman strength and supernatural powers but merely a darn good team. Herc may be brave but he doesn’t work solo, his elite force comprised of a cynic, a seer, an Amazon, a savage – and, most importantly, a bullshit artist, his own nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) who trumpets his deeds far and wide, burnishing the legend (“His father was Zeus. THE Zeus!”) and attracting more customers.
Herc and his crew are mercenaries, fighting strictly for gold. They’re also, inevitably, “a family”, a band of orphans rescued by the big guy after his own family were mysteriously murdered. There are fantasy elements, but Hercules isn’t really a fantasy. In fact, most of it unspools like a variation on Seven Samurai (or The Magnificent Seven), with the team hired to protect a village – kingdom, whatever – threatened by a warlord, tasked with training the local farmers and turning them into soldiers.
Hercules is primarily a war movie, light on the CGI beasties. This is not a film for your 8-year-old Hercules fan who’s besotted with Greek mythology. It’s not a film for 8-year-olds at all, actually (some of the violence is pretty gruesome) – though there’s an 8-year-old in the film, a little princeling who worships our hero and assures him that “I know all your Labours by heart” (he’s also British, well-rounded vowels being apparently essential to the Ancient Greece experience). Taken as a film called Hercules, it makes you wonder why they called it Hercules. Taken on its own terms, as a sword-and-sandal action spectacle based on a comic book … well, it’s watchable, but not much more.
One example: there’s a big battle scene about halfway through that must’ve swallowed up half the budget (which was $100 million, for the record). There are God’s-eye shots of the two armies, Herc’s farmer/soldiers surrounded by hundreds of green-painted savages, you name it. It’s extremely impressive – but the savages aren’t villains, in fact their attack on Herc’s troops appears to be a big misunderstanding (“We came here to save their village, now they’ve killed half my army!” grumbles John Hurt as the king), so the battle has zero emotional impact. Even by the standards of such things, Hercules doesn’t seem to have been thought-out very well. The only clever part is a late-breaking twist, but even that (I’ll try not to spoil any details) doesn’t really make sense. Hercules is a mercenary; he’ll fight for anyone. Why didn’t they just tell him the truth from the beginning?
How cynical is Hercules? This cynical: you’re allowed one (and only one) use of the F-word in a film rated PG-13 in the US – so it throws in a random expletive (“F***ing centaurs!”), just because it can. Or perhaps this cynical: the blockbuster formula requires that our hero must deliver an Inspiring Speech pre-battle – so Herc gives a brief generic speech (“You have it within yourselves to write your own legends!”) even though it comes out of nowhere, and is blatantly a case of hitting a mark.
Still, it’s August, when audiences are (even) more forgiving than usual – and Hercules does have some amusing bits, mostly in the team’s snappy banter (Ian McShane gets laughs as the slightly dotty seer). Then there’s the climax, with the villain screaming “Unleash the wolves!” and “Kill that filthy bastard!”, Herc’s past and present coming together, everyone’s back-story given an airing and a fist-pumping mob raising their voices to acclaim the new hero: “Hercules! Hercules!”. Now I’m getting Eddie Murphy flashbacks again.
DIRECTED BY Brett Ratner
STARRING Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt, Ian McShane
US 2014 98 mins.