D: Brett Ratner / 98m
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, Tobias Santelmann, Peter Mullan, Rebecca Ferguson, Isaac Andrews
Having completed his legendary Twelve Labours, Hercules (Johnson) is now a mercenary for hire, accompanied by seer Amphiaraus (McShane), childhood friend Autolycus (Sewell), child of battle Tydeus (Hennie), archer Atalanta (Berdal), and nephew Iolaus (Ritchie). Together, this motley band of friends in combat are approached by Ergenia (Ferguson), the daughter of Lord Cotys (Hurt), to rid Thrace of a local tyrant called Rhesus (Santelmann). When they reach Thrace, Hercules finds that Cotys’ army is comprised mostly of farmers with no combat experience, and even fewer martial skills. Aided by his companions, Hercules sets about moulding the Thracians into an army that will be able to defeat Rhesus’ greater force, and restore peace to the kingdom.
After defeating a force of mesmerised villagers, Hercules is apparently ambushed by Rhesus and his men, but he turns certain defeat into triumphal victory, capturing Rhesus and taking him to Cotys’ palace. Here, though, suspicions arise that Hercules and his companions have been used in a power play orchestrated by Cotys to seize the Thracian throne, which is rightfully due to Ergenia’s young son, Arius (Andrews). Unwilling to let this betrayal stand, Hercules sets out to put things right. He finds Cotys more than ready for him, though, and is swiftly captured. In chains, and with Cotys threatening to kill Arius if it means his keeping the throne, Hercules must use all his strength and fighting prowess to restore peace to the kingdom.
2014’s third Hercules movie – along with The Legend of Hercules and Hercules Reborn – this version certainly boasts a bigger budget and a more focused script than the other two, as well the better cast, but it still stumbles trying to maintain a consistent tone, its Braveheart-lite battle scenes offset by an admittedly acerbic line in humour, a darker back story involving the death of Hercules’ wife and children, and a plot so predictable that you can guess way, way in advance which one of Hercules’ companions doesn’t make it to the final credits.
Adapted from the Radical Comics series The Thracian Wars by Steve Moore, the movie does its best to provide a fun, light-hearted romp, but in its attempts to add some depth to a story that doesn’t really need it, it flits from one approach to the material to another without deciding on any one in particular, leaving the movie feeling a little disjointed and formed from various elements that haven’t quite gelled together. A good example of this is the way in which Hercules’ fame through his Twelve Labours is open to question: did he really do all those things alone, or did he have help from his comrades, and are the tales surrounding these feats mere hyperbole? Initially, it’s a neat touch: when presenting his patron King Eurystheus (Fiennes) with the heads of the Hydra, they are revealed to be the heads of men wearing serpent disguises; later, his visions of the three-headed dog Cerberus are revealed to have a more banal explanation, but this jarring of myth and reality is one of the few aspects of the movie that are effectively done (and despite a prologue that clearly states that Hercules is the son of Zeus).
Elsewhere, it’s little more than an excuse for much macho swaggering (even from Berdal), and as mentioned above, an often trenchant line in visual and verbal humour, with Sewell given all the best lines and relishing the chance to be the trusted friend rather than his usual role as the shallow betrayer. Johnson is given occasional moments in which to really act, but for the most part remains a somewhat stoic presence, just managing to overcome the plainly ludicrous requirement of wearing a lion’s head on top of his own. The largely British cast all treat their characters and dialogue with an awareness of ultimately how silly it all is, and make it all the more enjoyable for doing so, Hurt in particular tasked with switching from anxious patriarch to murderous tyrant in the same scene and yet still keeping it all entirely credible. And there’s intense support from the Scandinavian contingent, with Hennie almost unrecognisable as the same actor who appeared in Cold Lunch (2008) and Headhunters (2011).
Behind the camera, Ratner oversees things with energy and confidence but there’s still too many moments in the movie where the visuals take centre stage for the effect they create than for what they do in service to the story (the final confrontation on the steps of Cotys’ palace is spectacle for spectacle’s sake, and leaves the characters the movie’s spent so much time with reduced to mere bystanders). Some of this is to be expected – this is an action/adventure movie, after all – but it seems a shame that Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos’s script couldn’t have been more tightly focused on Hercules himself rather than the b-movie plot it fails to enliven or make more interesting. That said, the movie is splendid to look at thanks to veteran DoP Dante Spinotti, and there’s a stirring score provided by Fernando Velázquez that enhances the battle sequences vividly, and provides some unexpectedly emotive support in the quieter stretches.
Rating: 6/10 – like so many peplum movies, Hercules‘ strongest suit is in its action sequences, which are well-staged even though they don’t offer anything new; a pleasing performance from Johnson may help see in a sequel but at this stage, it might be a few more years in coming – if at all.