With Biblical epics are back in vogue thanks to Aronfosky’s Noah, Hollywood have now once more to the rich vein of Greek mythology.
With a physically exemplary Hercules – and more, a bankable star – in the form of the 6’4″, 240lb Dwayne Johnson, it seems almost inevitable that Olympus’ favourite son would be making his way back to the big screen. The vessel of his return: the refreshingly unsubtitled Hercules, a run-of-the-mill swords-and-sandals epic, directed by Brett Ratner.
Based on Steve Moore’s Hercules: The Thracian Wars, the film reimagines its title character as the leader of a band of mercenaries, trading off his (admittedly well-earned) reputation as a demi-god. Charged by the apparently desperate Lord Cotys (John Hurt) with defending his kingdom, Hercules comes face to face with his own legend and is forced to confront his tragic past. Sadly, though, a surprisingly strong premise gets bogged down with the obligatory action sequences.
In delving into the heroes’ past, Hercules examines key events in the building of his myth, including his origins, and dares to suggest they may, in fact, be less than supernatural. While this risks mundanity in making Hercules an “ordinary” man, it also serves to make him human, relatable. The risk he bears is not only of death but of diminishment, such as when his cousin Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) is more concerned that Hercules isn’t seen wounded than of the wounds themselves.
Despite their mostly one-note characters, the supporting cast are largely what drives the film: the venal, knife-throwing Autoclyus (Rufus Sewell), icy Amazonian Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), mute mad-dog warrior Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), and the slippery-tongued Iolaus all make the most of what they’re given, though its Ian McShane’s word-weary, death-defying soothsayer-cum-spearman Amphiarius who is the real scene-stealer – give him a line and watch him go.
On a budget of $100 million, Hercules does an impressive job at recreating the ancient world through which Hercules and his ilk roamed. The CGI creations – such as the Nemean Lion – are impressive, too, and, for all the sense of obligation, the battle sequences are carried out with a certain verve. Nevertheless, with the likes of John Hurt, a fawning Joseph Fiennes, and crusty Peter Mullan filling out the ranks, you’d hope for a film that doesn’t just tumble into an ending.
The great directors of epics, from Cecil B. DeMille to Stanley Kubrick, all remembered to put their characters at centre stage. It doesn’t matter how grand the maelstrom is if there’s nothing to capture at the eye of it. Despite Johnson’s authority in the lead role, Hercules exchange gravitas for quips – unusual to say for a Brett Ratner film, but it aims too low. If you keep this in mind, though, it makes a refreshing change, at least from the usual cycle of remakes and reboots.