Many box-office prognosticators have their bet on 'Hercules' to be the first expensive summer flop of the year, and - truth be told - before we saw Brett Ratner's take on the Greek demigod, we were just as unimpressed by what the trailers and the poster made it out to be. But the marketing of this utterly cheesy but surprisingly entertaining swords and sandals epic missed out one crucial point in its over- eagerness to sell the combat spectacle - it is also very intentionally funny.
In deconstructing the myth for a modern-day summer popcorn viewing audience, Ratner and his writers Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos have drawn their inspiration from Steve Moore and Admira Wijaya's graphic novels 'Hercules: The Thracian Wars' and placed our titular hero squarely in reality. As the opening narration cheekily warns, this isn't going to be the legend you're familiar with; rather, it uses the legend - including his fabled 12 labours - as no more than hearsay which his nephew tells to motivate the troops Hercules is leading into battle.
But really, Hercules is just a mere mortal with superhuman strength here, who leads a band of mercenaries helping kings and queens to slay beasts and conquer foes for a return in gold. Besides his aforementioned nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) who longs to prove himself in battle, the rest are just as fearless as Hercules himself - including the knife- throwing Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) with his witty asides, the spear- wielding seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), the super-sexy Amazon archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), and the brutish Tydeus (Aksel Hennie). They are as tightly knit a crew as anyone can ask for, and fiercely loyal to Hercules to whom they owe their lives.
As man, Hercules finds himself haunted by the death of his wife and children three years ago while in the kingdom of King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes). Accused as a murderer in Athens, Hercules is hack for hire by the ruler of Thrace, Lord Cotys (John Hurt), who enlists his crew to defeat a warlord rumoured to be a centaur and into the dark arts. That is the excuse for the first of many well-choreographed battle scenes, which Ratner stages with more verisimilitude than one has come to expect from similar such genre pictures. Though a trained viewer can still pick out the CGI, these scenes are nevertheless exciting and thrilling, combining good old-fashioned formation tactics with Ben Hur-like chariot chases and some Lord-of-the-Rings type one-versus-many pounding.
Those looking for some 'Game of Thrones' intrigue need not apply; indeed, the narrative here is as straightforward as it gets, no matter the minor twist two-thirds into the film that has Hercules struggling to make a moral choice when he realises that he and his crew may have been manipulated by Lord Cotys himself. It does however offer enough to give Dwayne Johnson to flex his dramatic muscles as Hercules, as his call of conscience gives him an opportunity to grow into the hero behind the legend.
That is of course nothing compared to the physical weightlifting which Johnson is called to do in the movie, the inevitable demands of the role only demonstrating why he is such a perfect fit for it. It is difficult to imagine any other Hollywood actor today than Johnson in the character, but it is more than just his physique that we are referring to here. Yes, Johnson also couples that with charm, charisma and comic timing, attributes of which play nicely to Ratner's neat balance of camp and solemnity in tone. Johnson is also joined by a stellar ensemble, in particular Hurt's scene-chewing performance as the duplicitous ruler.
Coming after such pompous predecessors like the god-awful 'Clash of the Titans' and its sequel 'Wrath of the Titans', as well as other copycats like 'Immortals' and even this year's 'The Legend of Hercules', Ratner's 'Hercules' comes almost like a breath of fresh air. It embraces its B- movie roots, doesn't try to be more than what it is, serves up a generous dollop of tongue-in-cheek fun and engaging battle action on an epic scale. Ignore the cynics - this is pure pulpy entertainment that is perfectly serviceable summer movie-going fun. After all, it takes a certain kind of movie that dares to reserve a zinger like 'f**king centaur' for its lead character in fourth-century BC.
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