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Review: Hercules (2014)

Hercules (2014)

Directed by: Brett Ratner

Premise: A retelling of the ancient myth. Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) and a group of mercenaries agree to help the King of Thrace (John Hurt) put down a rebellion.

What Works: Hercules has a number of things going in its favor. Among its better qualities is the cast. This film is helped considerably by the presence of some very good actors. Among them is Dwayne Johnson in the title role; Hercules has often been played as a muscle head but this version allows the character some wit and intelligence and even displays of sensitivity and those qualities, combined with Johnson’s charm, makes this Hercules very appealing. In this film Hercules travels with a band of mercenaries who lend their services to whoever is willing to pay them. The rapport between Hercules and his comrades is effective, in particular a mystic played by Ian McShane, a barbarian played by Aksel Hennie, and Hercules’ nephew played by Reece Ritche. McShane’s character is the voice of wisdom but he is also allowed a great deal of humor and he injects a lot of comic relief. Conversely, Hennie is a very dark character, a man who has been psychologically damaged by warfare and his character gives the violence of the movie some gravitas. Ritche’s character behaves as Hercules’ agent, embellishing his heroics and spreading the legend, and Ritche plays the part with the right proportion of carnival barking savvy and youthful enthusiasm. Aside from the cast, Hercules stands out in its humor and sense of fun. Some contemporary fantasy films are so self-serious that they become a slog but the filmmakers of Hercules remember to have fun and do so in ways that don’t cheapen the action or the drama. A lot of the humor is found in the elements of the Hercules myth. The filmmakers play coy as to whether Hercules is really a demigod or just a mortal human being who has built a godly reputation for himself. That keeps the movie intriguing while also allowing for moments of humor that send up the clichés of prophecy and destiny that the fantasy genre often uses and it gives the movie some intelligence and substance. For what it is, Hercules is a reasonably smart story and the filmmakers manage to give viewers a better movie than they might expect. Several characters are more than they appear to be, including Hercules himself, and the plot has some twists and turns that keep the story engaging. In its second half, Hercules borrows a page from The Wild Bunch as the title character and his associates must weigh gold against integrity, and that elevates the stakes of the story.

What Doesn’t: Hercules is an uneven picture, so much so that the filmmakers undermine many of the aspects that the movie has going in its favor. The special effects are especially inconsistent. The broad visuals of the climax are sometimes stunning but the mythical creatures frequently look cartoonish, especially the lion that Hercules combats in the opening prologue. That speaks to a broader flaw of this film, in that the action scenes aren’t executed very well. They are competently done but the set pieces don’t have much in the way of spectacle or style. A lot of this looks familiar and the filmmakers frequently channel other and better movies, namely Gladiator and Troy and a couple of sequences have more than passing resemblance to scenes from Army of Darkness. Speaking of the violence, Hercules is rated PG-13 but it’s certainly a movie on the threshold of that rating and so parents of sensitive children should consider themselves warned. The more intelligent aspects of Hercules work for and against this movie. Hercules has the framework of a much smarter and more complicated picture but the filmmakers don’t pursue or develop many of the ideas and character traits that they introduce. The filmmakers have greatness within their sights but settle for good enough.

Bottom Line: Hercules is a compromised picture. Pieces of this film hint that it could have been much better but this year’s other Hercules movie proves that it could have been much worse. Ultimately, the filmmakers tried to create a fun popcorn adventure and this Hercules succeeds at being exactly that.

Episode: #502 (August 3, 2014)