What struck me the most about the movie "Hercules" is that for something that on its surface is nothing more than the typical summer action movie, there lies surprisingly deeper meaning. Directed by Brett Ratner, a filmmaker with an admittedly hit or miss resume, "Hercules" is based off a 2008 Radical Comics story written by Steve Moore. For those of you craving a full fledged film adaptation of the Hercules story from Greek mythology, you may find yourself in the wrong film. Very quickly into this movie it will be realized that what was sold to you by the Zack Snyder-esque trailers is in fact another beast all together.
This is at first quite jarring, for what the film actually does is distill all the legends, stories, and myths about Hercules back to their source. Just as the ancient Greeks turned to convoluted mythologies and stories to explain naturally occurring phenomena, so too does the storyline of "Hercules". What it shows you, is how an extraordinarily strong and able leader gets a legend built around feats and achievements that are actually grounded in reality. Whereas 2006's "300" (perhaps the closest brethren in genre that can be found in recent film memory) shows the depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae through the lens of a campfire story filled with propaganda and exaggerated retelling, "Hercules" takes things more like a "live" view of the events through a realistic lens. While most people are at least somewhat aware of the so called twelve labors that Hercules had to endure (even if it's only based off movie knowledge from Disney's animated "Hercules", or even the mid-nineties Kevin Sorbo starring tv show), what if these "labors" were actually simple fights with ordinary beasts or even men disguising themselves as such?
This film does just that and while it may not be as visually distinct as 300 or even as exotic as what the trailers suggested, it does manage to pull off having its own unique feel and even manages to realistically depict the shield wall battle tactic. In fact, the most visually impressive scenes throughout the movie involve the shield wall. Taking wide helicopter shots of a unit solidified as "a single, impenetrable unit" had a fantastic look that lives up to the promise that wasn't quite fulfilled by "300". One could easily argue that many of the battle scenes included here are the most exciting seen since Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" or 2004's "Troy". The lighting used throughout the film is also impressive and manages to make it interesting without applying obvious over saturation or the type of "Instagram filtering" that can make your eyes water. The 3-D version of the film was immersive and contained subtle use throughout and was careful not to overindulge at least until the stylized closing credits.
Just as the film isn't afraid to poke at the legend, neither is it afraid to make fun of itself. The typical doom and gloom speeches about fate and destiny are found throughout the movie, but manage to balance it well with humor (which is something that the similarly themed 2010 depiction of "Clash of the Titans" and its pointless 2012 sequel "Wrath of the Titans" managed to both simultaneously lack and awkwardly force). Two particularly memorable gags that come to mind involve the character of Amphiaraus (played by the always welcome Ian McShane) and his repeated insistence that his "time has come" and another scene that essentially "Scooby-Doo's"one of the twelve labors. Subverting viewer expectations is always a tricky endeavor that can backfire miserably but "Hercules" manages to not only do this once, but twice to the audience and pulls it off surprisingly well.
The casting works decently for the most part. Dwayne Johnson has the perfect look for the character, however continues to sound the same in every role he portrays which at times may take you out of the film. It's certainly understandable that not every actor can put on a convincing accent, but when every other character in the film speaks with the (in?)-famous "ancient british" accent it's a bit jarring. The rest of the cast is rounded off with mostly unknowns with a few more famous faces thrown in here and there. John Hurt (of "V for Vendetta" and "Alien" fame) pulls off his role as the regional ruler of Thrace Lord Cotys decently with his now standard hint of ruthlessness and Joseph Fiennes (known for "Shakespeare in Love") does an okay turn as the rather ridiculous looking King Eurystheus of Argos. The character of Iolaus (played by Reece Ritchie) does come dangerously close to annoyingly hijack the film as the "comic relief" but manages to tone it down by the midway point of the movie and in fact is replaced by Ian McShane's character as the narrator by the end of the film. One wonders why Ian McShane wasn't used as the narrator during the opening sequence as well and many will wonder if the "comic relief" character was even needed.
"Hercules" isn't without its own thematic problems as well, as it features a rather humdrum first half that brings very little to the table that hasn't been seen before. In fact, I found myself wondering if perhaps halfway through shooting the writers realized how bland the story was and hurriedly re-wrote the last half. Some may find this a bit drastic or even inconsistent but I feel it manages to barely avoid that line and hold it together. Overall, the movie manages to overcome many these issues and rise well above the typical mindless summer action flick such as this years "Transformers: Age of Extinction".
I AM HERCULES!
- Despite all indications pointing to a mindless summer action flick, "Hercules" somehow manages to leave you with both a big smile on your face and the desire to actually reflect on the events shown in the movie.
- While it will certainly anger some, "Hercules" takes a big gamble by subverting your expectations based on what was shown in the trailers and somehow, incredibly pulls it off.
- Dwayne Johnson embodies the spirit of the character of Hercules and pulls off the look perfectly.
- The battle scenes involving the shield wall translate impressively to the screen and manage to hold off from some of the shenanigans depicted in 2006's "300".
- A deft balance between darker themes such as fate and death that tips more towards humor makes "Hercules" a very entertaining film to watch.
- Dwayne Johnson's character lacking an accent consistent with the rest of the cast is understandable (and would probably have been more distracting than what it was worth), but it can at times take you out of the movie.
- The main villain throughout the first half of the movie is rather lame. This was likely intentional and used for misdirection but did they really have to be named Rhesus? Oh and in case you're wondering? Yes, it is pronounced "Reece's" (just like the candy) throughout the film.
- While the misdirection and subverting of viewer expectation is a breath of fresh air, it will likely be aggravating to some and admittedly makes the movie slightly feel a bit inconsistent with itself.
Verdict: While some may be angry with "Hercules" based on the major differences of the final film compared to the trailers, it actually manages to showcase great action scenes mixed in with humor and decent twists. This is not your typical summer action movie and manages to both leave you entertained and contemplating the story.
As an experiment, watch this trailer again after you see the movie. Notice anything?
The companion piece for the film this week comes from Adam Fendelman over at review site Hollywood Chicago. Take a look and see his thoughts here.
Note: Well, it has certainly been awhile hasn't it?! I wanted to apologize for my long absence as I actually have gone through some major life changes in the past few months. I accepted a new "day job" with a company in the Chicago area back in April, so it has certainly required some adjustments (not to mention a considerable cross country road trip!). Rest assured that I will do my best to be more consistent with reviews from here on out. Happy movie watching everyone!