Review: Hercules (2014)

It had been one of those nightmares at the airport getting onto the airplane. As I sat with my single-serving meal shortly after our ascent, I decided to play something dumb and fun on the seat back touch-screen, to let my mind decompress. Hercules looked to be the most suitable option.

It stars Dwayne Johnson, I said to myself. He’s always likeable. It’s directed by Brett Ratner: no auteur, but a trusty entertainer. It’s about Hercules, so there should be some good sword swinging and monster slaying. I played the trailer, which I vaguely remembered seeing in theatres last year, to confirm my choice. The trailer shows various images of ancient warfare as well as Hercules taking on the different labours from myth. Long, reverberating, Inception-style booms propel the epic imagery, and a seasoned voice addresses the hero. Could be decent sword and sorcery, I thought.

Unfortunately, Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules is less Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian and more Clive Owen King Arthur. Yes, Hercules is yet another Hollywood demythologized heroic adventure.

I should have payed closer attention to the voice-over in the trailer, which asks Hercules, “Are you only the legend. Or are you the truth . . . behind the legend?” Spoken in the film by the old yet playful seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), the line gets at the movie’s thematic interests.

For in the film, Hercules’ labours are exposed as calculated exaggerations and outright fabrications early on. Hercules is a soldier-for-hire with a dark past, and Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), Hercules’ nephew and the storyteller among his band of mercenaries, spins tales of his feats in order to advertise his talents and intimidate his opponents. Legends are good for business, which perhaps sums up both our culture’s attitude to myth and our current value system. (Interestingly, the film’s trailer is an example of just this kind of commercially-motivated fabrication, roping me in with the hint of myth.)

John Hurt, his voice as gravely as ever, plays the king of Thrace, who hires Hercules and his crew to train his army and overcome the barbarian rebel Rhesus. Militarization accompanies the demythologization. The film is based on the Radical comic by Steve Moore, but the political machinations and duplicitous dealings that take place also recall today’s standard of cynical fantasy, Game of Thrones.

So, yes, I was disappointed with the approach, but expectations aren’t everything, so I’ll turn to the film’s execution. There are some enjoyable bits, but after the big turning point, the film goes through only familiar beats. Much of the action, especially the first battle at the burned-out village, is adequate, but it becomes less memorable as the film progresses. The climax failed to hold my interest, which is fatal for an adventure.

The film’s strength is its supporting cast, who play their conventional roles with vigor and visible enjoyment. Hercules’ team contains the usual type of members. Ingrid Bolsø Berdal is the tough, loyal warrior-woman, Aksel Hennie is the crazy guy, and Reece Ritchie is the youngest member who, of course, yearns to prove himself. The more memorable additions to the cast are Rufus Sewell, who plays Hercules’ smart aleck right-hand man, and Ian McShane, the old seer. Both are clearly having a lark. Joseph Fiennes weirdly channels his brother Ralph as an evil king, and John Hurt plays his multifarious king well. Dwayne Johnson sells the battle scenes, but is less capable conveying this Hercules’ moods and painful memories. Let the man play a straightforward hero! This isn’t, or shouldn’t be, Batman Begins.

As you can tell, I can’t get over the fact that I’m sick and tired of being shown the so-called reality behind legends. Worse is the kind of unreality a film like Hercules seems perfectly comfortable with in contrast. Centaurs become the butt of jokes and the Hydra is explained away, but some of the costumes look wildly ahistorical and the heroes mow down baddies with ease. So truth and actual reality are not the aims. It’s merely the trope, the modern cliché, of demythologization. So dumb and fun is what I got, but it wasn’t the kind I was hoping for.

4 out of 10

Hercules (USA, 2014)

Directed by Brett Ratner; screenplay by Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, based on the Radical comic by Steve Moore; starring Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, and John Hurt.