Movie Review: Hercules (2014)
Hercules Hercules Hercules!
We hear this chant several times in Brett Ratner’s “Hercules,” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and I laughed every time. Because Eddie Murphy. He’s completely ruined this word for me—for the better—as Steve Martin did with the word Oklahoma ... Oklahoma Oklahoma!
Or did “Hercules” come to us ruined?
He’s never exactly been an A-list character, has he? He gets played by musclemen who don’t have a wide range of talent: Steve Reeves, Lou Ferrigno, Kevin Sorbo. We like our 20th century updates of Hercules—Superman, Conan, Hulk—better than the ancient Greek myth, which, after all, is ancient, and Greek, and mythy.
Ratner’s version doesn’t begin badly because it takes apart the myth. “You think you know the truth about him?” a voiceover asks. “You know nothing.” We think the voice is addressing us, but it’s actually the voice of Ioalus (Reece Ritchie), Herc’s nephew and chief storyteller, who is being held captive by some scummy pirate or something. And the story Ioalus tells? Of Hercules’ 12 labors? Of being a demi-God and the son of Zeus? It’s bullshit. The myth is the myth, and Ioalus is the first P.R. man in history. Sure, Herc is big and strong, and each of the 12 labors is based on something, but they’ve been greatly exaggerated to instill fear in tyrants.
Who is Hercules really? He’s a former orphan and a former general who’s now a mercenary—a man who leads a team of experts:
- Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the right-hand man
- Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), the seer
- Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), the crazy mute
- Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), the tough chick/archer
We see them in action once, and then in repose; and then they’re hired by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of the embattled Lord Cotys (John Hurt), whose kingdom is being threatened by the rebel demon Rhesus (Tobias Satelmann), who ravages villages and leaves a stream of refugees in his wake. Herc takes the gig. He trains Cotys’ men into a strong army. And off they go—too early, in Hercules’ mind—to fight.
In the first battle they’re ambushed by bald men, painted green, who come out of the ground and attack with fury. They’re like the zombies in “World War Z,” and Herc and everyone win in the end ... but just barely. So, more training. Who were these green men? The villagers themselves that they were supposed to save? Did Rhesus do something to them to make them bald? Or green? I never quite got it.
At this point, and even earlier, we have two options as to where the movie’s going to go:
- Herc and his team will lose badly to Rhesus, be forced to regroup, and come back and win in the last act.
- It’s a trap. Cotys is a tyrant, and Herc is training the men he will have to fight in the end.
I suspected No. 2. Mostly because Cotys’ right-hand man, Sitacles, is played by Peter Mullan, who’s played villains in “Red Riding” and “Top of the Lake” and pretty much everything. You’d have to be a fool to trust that guy.
Which turns out to be the case. In the second battle, against Rhesus himself, who is simply a tall, blond, handsome dude, the battle ends quickly in Herc’s favor. But in the aftermath at Cotys’ castle, it’s all quickly revealed: Cotys, Sitacles, they’re dicks. The refugees? Cotys’ fault. Ergenia? Forced to fool Herc because Cotys threatened the life of her son—the true king. But Cotys isn’t a fool. He offers Herc a generalship, and, when this is declined, he simply pays him and lets him leave. But Herc can’t. He has to do what’s right. And in doing so—after being captured, chained, yadda yadda, and after Autolycus does the Han Solo thing by abandoning him but returning for the decisive blow—Herc becomes more than a man. He becomes more than his P.R. He lives up to the whatever.
Ratner, in other words, takes apart the myth in order to redeliver the myth. We’re too smart for the wish-fulfillment fantasy but we’re too weak to not want it.
Even so, beats hell out of “300.”