HERCULES

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Brett Ratner

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Rufus Sewell, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Peter Mullan, Joseph Fiennes, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Tobias Santelmann, Rebecca Ferguson, Isaac Andrews, Joe Anderson, Nicholas Moss.

Having endured numerous other dire films about Greek Gods, demi-gods and warriors fighting to save their precious kingdoms from attacking enemies (300: Rise Of An Empire, Clash Of The Titans and its risible sequel, and especially Renny Harlin’s recent awful Legend Of Hercules, etc) I had low expectations for this umpteenth film depicting the legendary exploits of the muscle bound Greek hero Hercules. Many people grew up watching Hercules on television as played by Kevin Sorbo, but the heroic warrior has also been played at various times by the likes of Steve Reeves (a veteran of sword and sandal action matinees), Arnold Schwarzenegger, even the Incredible Hulk himself Lou Ferrigno tried his hand at the role in the mid 80s, and Kellan Lutz rather blandly and woodenly played the role in Renny Harlin’s lacklustre film.

And now stepping up to the plate to leave his mark on the role is the former wrestler and action here Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock). Hercules is a labour of love for Johnson who has been trying to bring the story to the screen for over a decade. Johnson has worked out to beef up, and he brings plenty of muscle to the role. He at least looks credible in the role with his bulging and rippling biceps and muscles.

This film takes a different slant on the whole familiar mythology of Hercules, and is based on the graphic novel series written by the late Steve Moore which deconstructed the popular legends. Hercules is the first feature film script from writers Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, who has written a number of direct to DVD Disney animated sequels, but there is something a little cliched about the way their story unfolds on screen.

Here Hercules is haunted by his past, and there are rumours that he murdered his own family and has blood on his hands. Rather than the lone demi-God completing the fabled twelve labours set him by the goddess Hera, Hercules here is an outcast and a mercenary who performs tasks for money. He is accompanied by his merry band of rogues and one quite capable amazon warrior. There is the wise cracking and cynical Autolycus (Rufus Swell), his childhood friend who is expert with knives; Amphiaraius (Ian McShane) the seer who often envisages his own spectacular and glorious death on the battlefield; Tydeus (Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie, from the noir-like Headhunters, etc) a fearsome warrior who rarely speaks but handles himself in combat with an unparalleled ferocity; and Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) the amazon proficient and deadly with her bow and arrows. And then there is Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), Hercules’ young nephew, a storyteller who embellishes the legends surrounding Hercules.

Hercules and his band of mercenaries journey to the kingdom of Thrace, at the request of Lord Cotys (John Hurt), to help defend the realm against the threat posed by a band of marauders led by Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann, from Kon-Tiki, etc). Promised his weight in gold for his assistance, Hercules trains the Thracian farmers and builds them into a formidable army that is able to withstand the threat posed by Rhesus and his army. But Hercules learns that there is more at stake here from Cotys’ feisty daughter Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), anxious to protect her young son and heir Arius (Isaac Andrews). Cotys is apparently a corrupt and power hungry ruler prepared to do anything to seize more territory, and only Hercules stands in his way.

The director is Brett Ratner, a director for hire, whose schizophrenic resume includes the thriller Red Dragon; Tower Heist; X-Men: The Last Stand which is regarded as one of the lesser films in that franchise; the increasingly turgid Rush Hour series with a motor mouthed Chris Tucker; and the unfunny Martin Lawrence vehicle Money Talks and the drama Family Man with Nicolas Cage. There is something a little disappointing about his take on the legend of Hercules, but at least it is a lot better than Harlin’s earlier take on the character.

Unlike films like 300, etc, which used CGI to create whole digital armies, here Ratner uses actual extras to flesh out the armies, which lends a touch of realism to the epic and brutal action scenes, although there is some digital enhancement. Ratner’s direction is unusually robust here and the key action scenes seem to have been inspired by epics like Braveheart and Gladiator, and are bathed in blood with a high body count. The battle sequences are handled with a coherent style by regular cinematographer Dante Spinotti, which is unusual in today’s movies where camera movement tends to overly kinetic. There are also anachronistic touches of humour throughout the material.

Johnson is certainly charismatic enough, and has the right physicality to carry off the role, and he is very good in the superb battle sequences in which he crunches enemies effortlessly, and even punches out a horse. Ratner has packed the supporting cast with a number of British thespians including Sewell and McShane, who obviously enjoyed themselves immensely here in roles that have become a familiar part of their repertoire, but their droll performances lift the formulaic material. Hurt is also good as the power hungry, duplicitous and ambitious Lord Cotys, although this is a role that he could play in his sleep. Peter Mullan plays Sitacles, Cotys’ second in command, and Joseph Fiennes appears briefly as the craven and fiendish king of Athens, and their performances add to the film’s solid credentials.

Hercules may not be the best sword and sandals epic ever made, but it is an enjoyably dopy and old fashioned matinee-style entertainment in which you can put your brain on hold for a couple of hours and revel in the physicality and broad humour of it all. The relatively brief 98 minute running time races by.

★★★

 

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