In Hercules, Dwayne Johnson wears a lion’s head as a hat. That probably tells you a lot about the tone of director Brett Ratner’s larger-than-life sword-and-sandals adventure. Based on Steve Moore’s comic book of the same name, Hercules re-imagines the hero of classical legend as a flesh-and-blood mercenary struggling to live up to the weight of his own myth.
Surrounded by a misfit group of fellow warriors-for-hire, Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules is the ultimate working class hero, even if he is meant to be the son of Zeus: he leads from the front, and wades into action while the noblemen he works for stand around in their purple cloaks, chatting and eating freshly-peeled grapes.
Like videogame characters, Hercules’ crew each has a special move and their own personality trait. Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) is an expert with knives and obsessed with acquiring gold coins. Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) is a feisty Amazonian whose skill with a bow and arrow would make Robin Hood blanch. Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) is the Scrappy Doo-like orator of the group: plucky, up-beat and unable to shut up. Ian McShane’s Amphiaraus is the most entertaining; a seer who offers Hercules wise counsel, predicts the future and walks away with most of the film’s funniest lines.
Like a 4th century BC version of the A-Team, Hercules and his mercenaries work as soldiers of fortune, and having made short of a group of snaggle-toothed pirates, go off to work for Lord Cotys (John Hurt) of Thrace, whose land is being terrorised by an evil warlord called Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann) and his army of centaurs. In exchange for his own weight in gold, Hercules agrees to help Lord Cotys train a city full of ineffectual farmers into soldiers, and eventually, face Rhesus in battle.
Apparently aimed at the post-God Of War generation, Hercules dumbs its dialogue down somewhat, even by the standards of something like Louis Leterrier’s Clash Of The Titans remake. There’s a line, for example, that explains what the ‘labours’ in the 12 labours of Hercules means (“They’re dangerous missions”), plus a handy description of a centaur (“it’s half man, half horse”) just in case the audience isn’t keeping up.
Fortunately, the quality of the cast keeps things fresh. Johnson’s obviously perfect casting as Hercules from a physical standpoint, but he’s also a perennially likeable screen presence. He might struggle to imbue his character with a necessary jolt of pathos in one or two dramatic moments (instead of anguished, he looks as though he’s trying to remember something), but Johnson has real charisma, charm and comic timing. The scenes where he trades one-liners with Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell (the latter looking and sounding like a Superman II-era Terence Stamp) are great value, and do much to tide us through the moments of clunky exposition.
By a similar token, the CG effects are a mixed bag, with some of the iffy digital matte shots and computer-enhanced wide shots of armies look quite antiquated when compared to, say, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, but Dante Spinotti, who shot such Michael Mann classics as Manhunter and Heat, provides some effective cinematography elsewhere.
Spinotti’s experience really comes to the fore in the battle scenes, particularly when Ratner sets the more intrusive visual effects aside and just lets his army of extras have at it. Sure, Hercules is no Spartacus or Jason And The Argonauts, but the fights have weight and pace, with Johnson showing off his strength as a physical performer as he smashes men off the screen with a massive club. There’s certainly more zest and invention here than in Renny Harlin’s dour The Legend Of Hercules – a rival picture which arrived to poor reviews earlier this year. That film certainly didn’t have an 80s-style training montage, and its incarnation of Hercules (played by Kellan Lutz) didn’t defeat an enemy in combat by pushing over his horse.
After a shaky opening, Hercules’ plot even threatens to become quite interesting towards the third act, with John Hurt providing a show-stopping speech straight down the camera lens, and Peter Mullan (who plays an increasingly surly general) really making his presence felt in the final reel – it’s a pity, in fact, that Mullan’s character wasn’t given more opportunities to growl his lines and glower at Hercules.
The uneven CGI crashes back onto the screen like a tidal wave of pixels at the very end, which is roughly where the plot stops being interesting again. But from the first to the last, Hercules is buoyed up by the amiability of its cast, its brisk pace (this is one of the few major films we’ve seen this summer that isn’t more than two hours long) and its lack of pretension.
Hercules is unabashedly a B-movie, with its faintly camp tone appearing to hark back to the Italian Hercules movies from the 1950s onwards, which starred such muscle-bound legends as Steve Reeves, Alan Steel and Lou Ferrigno. Some cinemagoers might find all this a bit quaint, but the sense of fun, plus an always-charismatic Dwayne Johnson screaming from beneath his lion hat, makes Hercules well worth the price of a cinema ticket.
Hercules is out in UK cinemas on the 25th July.
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