Although there are tales of his heroic exploits, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is now a haunted mercenary plagued by visions of a violent family tragedy. He and his followers (who include Rufus Sewell and Ian McShane) are offered a gig to protect Thracian ruler John Hurt from an invading army of what are believed to be centaurs. Along the way Hercules and his men also train Hurt’s people (mostly farmers) to defend themselves. However, all is not as it appears. Joseph Fiennes turns up as an effete but evil king, Peter Mullan plays Hurt’s general, and Stephen Peacocke plays a Thracian with a grunge-era hairdo.
To say this is the best “Hercules” movie to date is probably to damn the film with faint praise, and it’s been a long time since I saw any of the Steve Reeves films. However, fact is this 2014 Brett Ratner (“Red Dragon”, “After the Sunset”, “Tower Heist”, “X-Men: The Last Stand”) film is certainly better than “The Legend of Hercules”, the Disney animated “Hercules”, TV’s “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”, and those godawful Lou Ferrigno “Hercules” movies. Scripted by Ryan J. Condal (his first film credit) and Evan Spiliotopolous (writer of a lot of Disney animated direct-to-DVD sequels), it’s based on a Steve Moore graphic novel and proceeds to somewhat de-mythologise Hercules, as a powerful dude yes, but also a person who works within a team and who claims that his exploits have been slightly exaggerated. Since I’ve ragged on previous versions of the tale straying from the course, how do I justify enjoying this one? Well, since it is set after Hercules’ legendary exploits, it manages to get away with it. So it may not be Hercules as I know it, but it’s not really trying to piss on the Hercules we all know and love, either. He’s still a formidable badass, unlike the Disney version that wrongly humbled him. Here he employs the telling of tales by one of his followers as a way of hyping his talents up to prospective employers. That doesn’t mean that there’s no truth to any of his famed exploits…just a lot of BS thrown into the mix for good measure.
The opening is fun, if cheesy with decent enough CGI. Dwayne Johnson is ideally cast in the lead, even if he’s better than this. It’s the kind of film that he’s perfect for, yet doesn’t allow him to show himself at his absolute best as an actor, either. The standout is actually Rufus Sewell (a pretty underrated actor, now I think of it) who is enjoying himself immensely, getting away with murder by refusing to take anything remotely seriously. Other performances are varied, with Joseph Fiennes reminding us that he’s still alive as a villain who likes peacocks. Jesus, why not call him Gayus Homoeroticus, while you’re at it? Joseph also reminds us that he’s nowhere near as talented as Ralph (nor is he nearly as good at playing sneering villains). The sometimes brilliant Ian McShane offers up the bare minimum in the hope that presence and authority land him over the line (They don’t). However, character actor Peter Mullan steals his every scene, even if he seems awfully Scottish for a Greek. You wish he were in a lot more of the film. John Hurt, meanwhile obviously never turns a script down, but he surprisingly doesn’t phone it in here like McShane. Having said that, he doesn’t need to do much when he’s got that great voice. Still, Hurt’s good in the part and isn’t just trading on his presence or reputation. Aussie soap actor Steve Peacocke is here too with hideous long hair straight out of 1991.
The film isn’t anything great, but it’s actually more fun than expected. You have to laugh at Hercules, inspired by that infamous Greek god Indiana Jones, dispatching an oncoming foe with a single punch. Classic. We also get a pretty cool, if bloodless battle sequence with an especially ferocious, possibly undead army. Boring it ain’t. At the very least it has found a way to do a Roman (or in this case, Greek) epic without actually ripping off “Gladiator”. Take that, “Pompeii”. Thanks to Dante Spinotti (“Last of the Mohicans”, “Heat”, “After the Sunset”), it also mostly looks terrific, with some truly beautiful scenery on display.
It’s an interesting idea that the once-mighty Hercules has become a paid mercenary haunted by visions of great violence against his own family that he doesn’t fully remember. It takes things into a slightly dark territory without entirely ruining the mythology nor forgetting to be entertainment. This ain’t a cheap rip-off like Renny Harlin’s “Legend of Hercules”, it’s a fun blockbuster, and that’s pretty much all it’s trying to be. It’s awfully short, though. I was a bit surprised about that, but really the only drawback to this one is some shitty CGI flames and a few lame-arse performances. Otherwise, it’s pretty much as good a “Hercules” movie as you’re gonna get. I’d be a lot more positive about this one if The Rock had made it prior to his strong acting turns in “Snitch” and “Pain & Gain” (Even though it might actually be a better film than at least the former). I guess you could call it a mild recommendation, then.