Movie Review: Hercules (2014)

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Let’s get something straight. This is Hercules starring The Rock, not The Legend of Hercules, the wannabe effort starring Twilight alumnus Kellan Lutz. The Legend of Hercules, released at the beginning of the year, was an appetizer: the cast was B-grade, the budget was relatively small (US$70 million) for “blockbuster standards,” and the overall effort felt underwhelming. Directed by Renny Harlin (of Die Hard 2 fame), it’s not anywhere near as bad as its Rotten Tomatoes 3% rating suggests, but everyone knew it would pale in comparison to the main course: the Brett Ratner version with The Rock in the titular role.

True to predictions, Hercules is a vastly superior film to The Legend of Hercules. That said, the two are very different movies in that apart from the name of the central protagonist, everything else is completely different.

The Legend of Hercules is a typical origins story that depicts Hercules’ life from conception to birth to rise. It’s a typical Hollywood endeavor that follows a straight, predictable line all the way through just like you’d expect.

Hercules, on the other hand, turned out to be unlike what I anticipated. When I saw the trailer, I had expected the film to follow a similar trajectory to The Legend of Hercules, just with a better lead actor, bigger budget, and skilled execution of both drama and action. When I actually saw the film, I realised how misleading the trailers were. Strangely, the Hercules in this film is much more grounded in reality. He does have amazing strength and skill as a soldier, but it leaves the truth of his legendary feats up in the air. Did they really happen, are they blatant exaggerations, or are they completely made up to fuel his reputation? The film lets us draw our own conclusions on these questions, and even asks whether it really matters.

And the film has a whole lot of fun too. The trailers made the film look like a straight-shooter, but it is actually full of wisecracks and tongue-in-cheek jokes. Everything about it surprised me. It was not what I thought it would be, and yet it was the right way — probably the best way — to go about making a film on the legendary demi-god.

The story, based on Hercules: The Thracian Wars from Radical Comics, begins when Hercules is already a legend leading a band of mercenaries that includes a prophet (Ian McShane), a feral warrior (Askel Hennie), a knife-throwing thief (Rufus Sewell), and Amazonia archer (Nicole Kidman lookalike Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), and his nephew/propaganda chief Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). Legend has it that Hercules, who has already completed the Twelve Labors, is the son of Zeus, and it’s a legend that served the mercenaries well in getting a new job from Lord Cotys (John Hurt), who wants them to train the Thracian armies to defeat the warlord Rheseus (Tobias Santelmann).

I don’t mean to shit on anyone, but The Rock is a much better Hercules than pretty-boy Lutz, who may look more like the traditional Disney version but is so wooden he might as well be portraying Annabelle (the demonic doll). And I like Lutz a lot. I think he’s a humble, hardworking guy doing his best.

The Rock makes Hercules flesh and blood, and uses his charisma to turn the demi-god into a likable protagonist who is more self-aware than he should be. I liked the idea of him having a loyal team to support him so that he has people he cares about and fights for, and luckily for the film, each of the team members are developed sufficiently so we know who they are and how to distinguish them.

The action scenes are done well, with the right amount of special effects, though they do fall short of the epic scales of other battle films in recent years. The Rock’s presence always makes fight scenes more explosive than they otherwise would be, but on the whole the film failed to deliver anything we haven’t already seen on battlefields before.

Hercules falls well short of the classic I had been hoping for because it fails to excel in either the action, drama or plot. That said, it is solid in all those respects and does not take itself too seriously, allowing The Rock to take care the rest by carrying the film on his insanely buffed shoulders. A breezy popcorn movie that’s never as good as it should be, but good enough for a fun time. It’s not a must-see by any means, but it’s the no-brainer pick if you plan on seeing only one Hercules flick this year.

3.25 stars out of 5

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