I wasn’t expecting much from Hercules. Films about Greek mythology tend to be distinctly underwhelming things, relying on awkward CGI, strange backstories, and shirtlessness. Disney’s Hercules was pretty much the high point.
I was even less excited when I realised that the titular role was being played by the Rock, Dwayne Johnson. I’ve nothing against the actor in question, and quite like several of his films (though cars don’t really do much for me). However, his casting seemed indicative of exactly the kind of film I didn’t want: dumb, loud, and with little respect for the source material.
I was, I must admit, pleasantly surprised. Hercules doesn’t play the legend straight, but it knows that it isn’t following the story exactly. It takes that and turns it into a major theme in the film – the conflict between expectation and reality, heroism and just being a mercenary. The legend is played with and altered and revealed in a manner that was way more sophisticated than I expected.
The film is set slightly after the twelve labours of Hercules, when he already has a legend and a reputation. Hercules is a wandering mercenary, accompanied everywhere by a band of warriors (you can tick off various archetypes – wise old sage, plucky-but-annoying youngster, tempestuous female archer). Rumours about him are growing, spread – in many cases – by his own followers.
He and his warriors are hired to defend a kingdom against a supernatural enemy. There’s a romantic subplot, the aforementioned theme of unreliable legend, inter-party bickering and lots of fighting. The first half is essentially Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven, just in Greece.
The film is visually impressive, avoiding the monsters seeming rubbery or looking like men in suits. Everything is vivid and crisp. The action is reminiscent of a slightly less hyper 300, with lots of quick changes in camera angle and varying speeds. The fighting is lovingly choreographed, particularly in the scenes where someone is recounting the legends. I think the thing I most enjoyed was seeing certain fights from different perspectives – first as a story told by Hercules’ followers, and then as a memory, showing how it actually worked.
The plot is occasionally a little ropey, with characters, particularly armies, making terrible political and tactical decisions. That’s par for the course though, with films involving warfare; off-hand, I can’t think of a film in which the armies act even close to rationally. The final battle in The Last Samurai and the battle at the Black Gate in The Lord of the Rings are particularly egregious examples. The larger plot is jerky, but possible to follow – there are a couple of big changes that should have been better signposted, but it’s all survivable.
The acting is competent, but relatively two-dimensional. That’s not the actors’ faults though – as mentioned above, each character does tend to fall into a particular bracket, exhibiting the character traits and wearing the clothes expected of them. Dwayne Johnson is obviously the primary focus, but it’s nice to see Rufus Sewell getting to play a good guy. He’s fantastic at looking evil, but every interview I’ve ever read with him shows that he just wants to be the hero once in a while.
I would have liked more mythology in my Hercules film, but I’m okay with its absence. This isn’t a film that presents Hercules as a demigod, but one that presents him as a flawed and confused mortal, trying to cope with his own legend while not believing it to be true. It’s not a CGI-stuffed monster fighting bonanza, but it is still entertaining, and it goes a little deeper than the standard sword-and-sandal film.
It isn’t rubbish. It’s well-constructed, decently acted, and aims for more complexity (without sacrificing fight scenes) than might be expected. I quite enjoyed it.