Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Alternate Title:  And the Rock Feels No Pain

One sentence synopsis:    Hercules and his band of adventurers seek to save a Thracian kingdom from the depredations of a horde of centaur barbarians.

Things Havoc liked: My process for choosing movies to watch is not terribly sophisticated. Trailers, posters, the occasional bit of rumor overheard from here or there, as well as my own biased opinion of what I do and don't want to see all factor into it. Some movies I will see despite the fact that I have strong suspicions that they are going to turn out terrible (Godzilla, Pacific Rim, Suckerpunch). And some, despite excellent trailers and decent word of mouth, I simply have no interest in watching whatsoever (the entire Planet of the Apes series). I do not explain all this to defend my decision to see Hercules, for that was an easy choice, but rather to explain why I was so excited to see this movie. And for that, we need to discuss another movie, specifically 2004's Troy.

Troy, for those who haven't seen it, was an epic all-star blockbuster based on Homer's Iliad, and it was also one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Not because it was badly written, acted, or had poor action, but because it completely missed the point of its source material, turning the Iliad into a modern parable about a conflicted hero (Achilles) who doesn't want to war, but does so anyway, reluctantly, to satisfy the whims of a thoroughly modern tyrant who seeks to conquer all Greece and rule it in a modern Empire. Not only is this completely antithetical to the story of Achilles and the Trojan War, it was also completely Antithetical to the reality of it, of Mycenean pirate-kings raiding hill forts in Asia Minor with their retinues of soldiers. And being as the Iliad is kind of my thing (Ancient History, etc...), this pissed me the hell off.

Why am I bringing this all up? Because Hercules gets it right.

No, I don't mean they're scrupulously faithful to all elements of the Hercules legend (for one thing, that would require calling the movie Herakles), in fact they junk a considerable amount of it, but it doesn't matter, because the essence of the story is right, or at least of some version of the story. Indeed, the whole point of the movie, to my surprise, is the gap between the legend of a figure like Hercules, and the (likely) reality of that situation. Hercules, like every other legend in the world from Gilgamesh to Spring-Heeled Jack had to come from somewhere after all, and this film posits one such place that it could have been, all without trying to "revise" the legend itself. This is not a movie like Ridley Scott's Robin Hood which seems almost contemptuous of its own mythology, nor one of those tired elements wherein the hero is buried by his own legend and must find the strength to live up to it. Instead we actually get to sit down and discover where such a story as that of Hercules might well have come from, and why, consciously or otherwise, it might have been embellished to the point it was.

Or was it? The movie plays a rather cagey game all the way through as to what's actually going on here, how much of Hercules' mythology is actually myth and how much is not. This game is helped by the casting of Dwayne Johnson, the Rock, who is a figure of such almost comedic mass and power (to say nothing of his natural showmanship) that he manages to believably blur the line between a real person and a legendary figure. I've been a big fan of the Rock's since I first came to know him, even in bad movies, and his turns in things like Be Cool or Pain & Gain have long-since proven that he's a far better actor than he's given credit for being. Hercules doesn't exactly stretch his range, but he certainly looks and feels the part, a man just at the edge of what is possible, whose legend goes well beyond. Not many guys can walk into a room wearing a lion skin and loincloth, carrying a club the size of a tree, and have nobody laugh at them.

And a lot of why this duality manages to work is the presence of several of Hercules' co-stars, particularly Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter's Rufus Sewell and Deadwood's Ian McShane. Friends and long-time battle companions of Hercules (the very existence of a crew of fellow badasses with Hercules is fed directly into the theme above), both Sewell and McShane take on the role of cynical commentators on the goings on, as Hercules' legend is embellished and burnished. There are none of the tired cliches here, the resentment of the leader or contempt for legends or wide-eyed adoration turned to mockery when the hero fails to stand up to the legend built for himself. Instead we simply get action, piles of it, violent and bone-crushing and quite expertly done (the scythe chariots in particular were a nice touch). All in all, what we have here is a fun adventure romp in the classical style, and if that's what you were looking for going in, as I was, you'll have a great time with Hercules.

Things Havoc disliked: Shame about that plot though.

Yeah, I know, action movie, plot optional, but that's not really true and never has been and you all know that. It's not so much that the plot is bad as it is horribly dated, and treats itself like it isn't. And I hate to lay the blame for this on a particular actor, but John Hurt, of all people, deserves a particularly dishonorable mention, for whatever reason (bad script, bad directing, brain aneurysm). His King Cotys goes through several massive personality transplants at points throughout the movie, providing whatever the movie needs at that particular moment, be it a screaming, puppy-kicking villain, a wise, beleaguered ruler, a dedicated family man, a merciless tyrant, or (ultimately) a complete idiot. As a result his character, and all those associated with him, including his daughter and grandson (Rebecca Fergusson and Isaac Andrews) are utter cyphers, saying and doing whatever the director needs them to say or do to hammer home the "point" of a given scene, or push Hercules into reaching the next action setpiece.

Inconsistencies in the writing, or rather the quality thereof, also serve to confuse the issue, to the point where I began to wonder if there weren't multiple screenwriters involved. The opening sequence, a battle against Aegean pirates, serves so transparently as an "let us introduce the team of badasses by name one by one" sequence that I thought for a moment we'd switched into a Japanese Sentai show, and several of the characters, particularly Atalante (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) are wooden and flat. Not as wooden and flat however as Joseph Fiennes' turn as King Eurystheus, a completely useless character brought in at the last second for no reason other than to try and desperately undo all of the good ideas the movie had about Hercules and replace them all with more standard cliches. This character has editorial meddling written all over it, and seems to have been conjured out of nowhere so as to suddenly give Hercules a more standard Hollywood arc at the last second, accompanied by a thunderously out-of-place "buck the hero up" speech at a moment when there is no reason to have one.

Final thoughts:   Still, half a daring movie is better than no daring movie at all, and Hercules, despite its manifest flaws, is still a rock solid action piece with more to say than I had expected it to. I won't be remembering this film for all time as a classic of the silver screen, but it's a fun, competent, highly-serviceable action flick starring fun actors making witty commentary on the goings on. Classics have been made from less than this, and while this film isn't one, it's still definitely a worthwhile endeavor.

And if you need more convincing, this movie also possesses the coveted "Raging Hatred" award from noted film connoisseur Alan Moore. If that doesn't make you want to watch this film, I don't know what will.

Final Score:  6.5/10

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