Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Hercules: Cliched, Flawed But Entertaining

Hercules - Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind"A man who wants nothing has no price."  - Cotys

I don't know how many movies and TV series (around 38) based on the Greek Heracles and the Roman Hercules.  Some are comedies like "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" and some are some are spoofs like the 1933 "The Warrior's Husband."  Some Hercules movies end up being ridiculous like the 1969 low budget attempt titled “Hercules in New York," played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Dwayne Johnson's "Hercules" turns out to be far above these aforementioned films that Brett Ratner's take may actually feel a bit encouraging.  Although not an epic film, Johnson's portrayal, although sometimes stiff, is actually decent.  Almost epic battle scenes and a slightly above average story based somewhat on the Steve Moore penned comic "Hercules: Thracian Wars," "Hercules" makes a fun Saturday popcorn action-adventure film.  Perfectly timed at a one hour and thirty-two minutes, the film is rated PG-13 for the aforementioned battles and the one swear word that the film could have done without.

I grew up reading Greek Mythology.  In doing so, I learned that various versions and translations exist and I have come to understand that part of Greek literature was a means of teaching lessons and values.  Brett Ratner's "Hercules" in spite of its obvious flaws, tongue in cheeks jokes doesn't exactly that, and just a tad more.  Since working his way out of the gladiator pit of the World-Wide Wrestling Federation in the late-late nineties, Dwayne Johnson has been working at the acting craft and has turned his presence into something more likeable then the horribly digitized Scorpion King in the "The Mummy Returns" in 2001.  He is good at action, we know that and he is good a lighthearted comedy, so it seems this version of Hercules is right for him. 

Hercules - Dwayne Johnson | A Constantly Racing Mind
In this version of Hercules, the year is 358 BCE and the place is Macedonia.  Hercules nephew Iolaus played by Reece Ritchie ("10,000 BC," "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time") gives his capturers the run down on how this Hercules is.  Apparently, Hercules is not the man of mythic legends -- yet.  This is not so much an origin story about the man but more of the legend.  By the time we catch up with Hercules we also find that he doesn't travel alone.  Instead, he travels with a merry band of mercenaries whose clichéd characters are just that.  None of Hercules supporting characters are well defined and relies on their tropes to enable the audience to recognize them.  Atalanta, for instance, is an Amazonian warrior woman, and like “Xena: Warrior Princes,” she is tough and hardcore.  Also like Xena, her companions don’t objectify her, but instead, respect her. Refreshing, huh?   Ingrid Berdal ("Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters ") plays Atalanta more like a Legolas type with bow and an unlimited supply of arrows and moves to match.  Aksel Hennie a fellow citizen of Berdal, the Norwegian actor is Tydeus, a strong and silent warrior.  Found as a child by Hercules in the city of Thebes.  The child was the only survivor after the towns people were raided and slaughtered.  Chained up at night because he tends to thrash around in his nightmares, Tydeus is actually an able warrior.  Autolycus is Hercules oldest friend, once roamed the streets as orphans as kids.  Rufus Sewell ("Dark City") does a decent job with scant material.  The standout performer of Hercules compatriots is Ian McShane as Amphiaraus, the warrior wizard.  A bit like Merlin, he is a seer who knows the moment of his death -- supposedly.  McShane recently played Blackbeard in the latest installment of the Johnny Depp vehicle "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." 

"We will fight for you, and we will die for you!"  ~ Atalanta

John Hurt is always busy these days.  The 74 year-old actor whose 189  film and television credits include the classic sci-fi horror film "Alien," David Lynch's "The Elephant Man," and "V for Vendetta.”  He played Winston Smith, the doomed revolutionary in the George Orwell adaptation of "1984,"  Hurt played in the "Harry Potter," and  "Hellboy" franchises and he co-starred in the much maligned "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."  He played Hrothgar in the science fiction version of “Beowulf,” titled "Outlander."  Here he plays Lord Cotys of Thrace, the seemingly beleaguered noble leader of the downtrodden Thracians.  Hurt plays Cotys very serious and is almost believable in his piety and desire for a better Thrace.  His daughter Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) is the dutiful daughter of whose job it is to entice Hercules to come and fight Cotys' enemies for him.  She has a son, Arius (Isaac Andrews), who is about the same age as one of Hercules's dead kids.  Peter Mullan ("Trainspotting," "War Horse") is Cotys's general and current military leader who eyes Hercules with disdain.  Joseph Fiennes ("Enemy at the Gates," "Luther") plays King Eurystheus of Athens, Hercules cousin and benefactor.


Hercules - Dwayne Johnson & Ian McShane | A Constantly Racing Mind

The story has nothing to do with Hercules' 12 labors of myth and legend.  In fact, as the audience finds out, these stories are the invention of Iolaus' imagination and his insistence at being Hercules walking public relations manager.  In fact, he is very good at it.  Iolaus turns the victories of the group into the victory of the one and fuels the flame of myth. At one point, I thought he was going to tell me that the leather armor was made out of "fine Corinthian leather."
The other four go along because it makes vanquishing their enemies easier if they think that Hercules is more than a man.  After Ergenia's urging, the gold seeking mercenaries come to Thrace and have an audience with Cotys.  Hercules accepts the role of training Cotys’ and Sitacles' (Mullan) rag-tag army.  They do this primarily by teaching the hapless soldiers to lock their feet and brace their shields for impact.  This is pretty much the basis, of the strategy (a good one by Greek and Roman hoplite convention) when Hercules shouts "Shield Wall!"

"You think you know the truth about him?  You know nothing!” ~ Amphiaraus

Much of what happens in "Hercules" is seen in films like "Gladiator" with Russell Crowe, or "King Arthur" with Clive Owen.  Like "Game of Thrones," there is treachery, there are battles and the death of his family haunts the hero.  Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos' script works to reduce the character of Hercules to its bare essence.  Is he a man?  A legend, or was he just a myth.  Although there isn't any epic battles against fantastical creatures (except told in the beginning by Iolaus) the battle scenes are done pretty well when seen from above.  From ground view, the action is realistic and the gore level is turned down to an appropriate PG-13 level.  Musically, Fernando Velázquez ("Mama," "Devil") score works for this film as it not only holds the scenes together but gets the audiences adrenaline rushing as well.  It takes many Special Effects Houses to create a film like this because there is just so much.  Many of the VFX are fine, but in places (snakes slithering from Hera's eyes) are not up to par. 

Hercules - Dwayne Johnson & Ingrid Bolsø Berdal & Reece Ritchie & Rufus Sewell | A Constantly Racing Mind

The plot twists are predictable, the jokes are corny, and the dialog is cheesy.  For the most part this works on one level, but is lacking in others.  Ian McShane works hard with what he has, does a reasonably good job in propping up with the dialog, and plays it kind of tongue in cheek.  For example, when a burning javelin is flying toward his chest, which he predicted, he opens his arms and welcomes his death.  Just as the music rises, ready to crescendo, Johnson snatches the javelin from the air, and Amphiaraus says, "Do you mind?  I was having a moment!”  Johnson does well in these types of sword and sandals flicks.  Unlike "300" and its sequel, I don't think Brett Ratner is actually working to reach the grandeur of either "Gladiator" or "King Arthur."  Instead, Ratner seems to know his place and gives us just enough story to keep us interested, just enough action to keep us from being bored, just enough corny dialog to let us know that this film isn't serious, and just enough of Johnson's charisma to keep us watching.  This is a fun film and entertaining film, but if you are looking for something profound, this isn't it.  What you will get out of this is a lesson on friendship, loyalty, honor, and integrity.  If you get that much out of "Hercules," then it is definitely worth watching.

Movie Data
Genre: Action, Adventure
Year:  2014
Staring: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Reece Ritchie
Director: Brett Ratner
Producer(s): Beau Flynn, Barry Levine, Brett Ratner
Writer: Ryan Condal, Evan Spiliotopoulos, Steve Moore (comic)
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date:  7/25/2014