“Hercules” a Compelling New Look at Weathered Demigod
Color me “surprised” in regards to Brett Ratner’s Hercules, an unexpectedly thrilling, smart and at times moving new take on everyone’s favorite demigod. It goes without saying that they got off on the right foot by casting Dwayne Johnson in the title role but what’s most surprising is the intelligence found in the adaptation of Steve Moore’s Radical Comics mini-series by Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos. Far more than just a sword and sandal saga, the film casts its hero not as the son of Zeus, but rather as a mortal whose feats of derring-do have been so exaggerated that the only explanation for these exploits is that Hercules must be part deity to accomplish them, a reputation he struggles to uphold.
After a brief recap of Hercules’ 12 labors, which regrettably did not include the sight of the he-man cleaning the Augean stables, Ratner quickly introduces us to the main players and drops us into the middle of the action. Seems that Hercules took to wandering after doing his penance and along the way, assembled about him a band of orphans and misfits. They include Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), a warrior prophet whose provides comic relief when predictions of his own demise prove wrong; Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), a loyal friend handy with flying daggers whose interest in money outweighs all; Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), a mute warrior found as an infant whose loyalty to Hercules is unwavering; Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) the fierce archer of Greek myth and Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), a master storyteller who’s most responsible for spreading the word concerning his uncle Hercules’ feats and blowing them out of proportion as well.
Together, these six are a formidable group whose services are available to the highest bidder and they are commissioned by Lord Cotys (John Hurt) who’s having a problem with rogue invaders led by the sorcerer Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). He’s ravaged the good king’s kingdom, leaving him an army of inexperienced farmers to protect the realm. Seems this despot is about to deliver the killing blow, so Hercules and his crew are hired to protect the kingdom as well as train what’s left of the army in the fine art of killing.
The premise is taken directly from Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and because it’s so familiar, Ratner wastes little time setting it up or dispensing with the requisite training scenes, all of which is done with economy and humor. The director has never been given his due, primarily because most of his films are seen as throwaway vehicles. However, most of what he’s done has been highly entertaining (Rush Hour, Tower Heist) and occasionally moving (The Family Man) qualities evident here that help elevate this among the usual action fare.
While the plot holds little in the way of surprises, the formidable cast gives it their all, at times attacking it as if it were a piece of Shakespearean court intrigue. Johnson holds his own, especially when called upon to display the grief and guilt his character feels over the death of his family while McShane and Sewell are of particular note, knowing just when to nudge a joke for a laugh or pull back to tug at our hearts.
Imaginative battle sequences, a good plot twist and a dynamic conclusion deliver more than enough thrills to satisfy even the most jaded action fan. However, it’s the way the themes of loyalty, honor and heroism are played out that make Hercules more than a simple summer time waster. These lessons are rendered in the most sincere manner and lend a gravity to the film that suits it well, as this tale of a man who realizes heroic deeds can be god-like in nature will only nurture the legend of Hercules all the more.