“I love Greek mythology.” That’s the first note I wrote down as the Paramount stars skidded their way across that lake to take their rightful place around that oh-so-familiar mountain. I suppose that statement is true – or at least true of my life at one point in time. Greek mythology is like the original comic books, and as a child I loved them for their seemingly endless supply of wacky characters with weirdo origin stories. Greek mythology is like the X-Men, but with a little more incest. So, given all of that, Hercules ought to be right up my alley, even though “Hercules” is the Roman variant of the Greek demigod Heracles, but whatever. It’s a common mistake.
Hercules opens with a brief retelling of the hero’s (played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – how can you go wrong?) origin and backstory re: his twelve labors. Right away this is triggering warning sirens in my mind. Why gloss over some of Hercules’s coolest stories? Well it turns out screenwriters Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos made this artistic decision because their movie isn’t about the Hercules we know from all those myths. No, their Hercules (based on the graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars by Steve Moore and Admira Wijaya) is the “real” Hercules – a gritty, realistic mercenary who plays on his greatly-exaggerated godly reputation for personal gain. This certainly isn’t the interpretation I was expecting (or the one being pushed by the marketing), but I’m willing to give it a chance.
So anyway, turns out all of Hercules’s amazing feats have been accomplished with the help of his friends: knife-throwing Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), future-seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane having the most fun I’ve seen him have since Hot Rod), bow-and-arrow-babe Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), scarred-up wildman Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), and story-telling wimp Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). The band of outsiders (now that’s a good movie title) is contracted by Cotys (John Hurt), the King of Thrace, to defend his lands from an encroaching warlord. Hercules and his people train Cotys’s public, all while Hercules runs from a bloody, uncertain past that led another king (Joseph Fiennes as Adam Levine) to banish him.
Once you come to terms with the fact that Hercules won’t be the movie you wanted, it is pretty easy to get on board with. The film moves along pretty briskly from the very start. There are some fun moments, and the action scenes (two big battles, in particular) are shot really well. The movement is clear, the fighting itself never feels tedious, and a good portion of it looks practical. Kudos to director Brett Ratner – which is a phrase I never thought I would seriously type.
There’s plenty wrong with Hercules though, including plenty of bad or phoned-in acting – Johnson doesn’t show nearly the level of investment he did in last year’s Pain & Gain. This trickles down to the way the actors handle the props. Everyone picks up giant objects as if they weigh nothing (probably because they are all made of Styrofoam). Unfortunately not all of the actors hold themselves to the same standard of commitment as McShane.
But that’s how it goes. You come for the McShane, you stay for the battles, and you leave wondering how The Rock and his equally ethnic wife produced at least one overwhelmingly white child. Overall, that’s a fun experience, even if you are miffed about the whole mythology thing. I could easily see myself making fun of this movie over beers with good friends in a few months’ time. And there’s nothing wrong with that.