This is the edited copy of the review. A version of this review was published at Dawn.com
Son of Zeus? Maybe, Maybe Not
By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid
In the years’ second – and far better – reiteration of the Greek hero Hercules, the action (as clearly defined in the trailer) takes as much precedence as the fact that this hero’s fantastic tales may just be a prolonged advertisement campaign in a world where gods and monsters do not exist.
Been There, Remade That
Adapted from the five part comic book by the late Steven Moore, Hercules, played here without a buffed-up attitude, and a requisite well-toned physique by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, is a digression to established perceptions. He’s world-weary and battle-worn (one can see it in the wrinkles under Mr. Johnson’s eyes), and director Brett Ratner (of Rush Hour and X-Men: The Last Stand), has the insight to not linger on the mythical hero’s past accomplishments.
Instead, we find Hercules a mortal soldier for hire (there is a slight backstory of how turned out like this), with a rag-tag group of skilled mercenaries. They are: Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), a knife-throwing thief; Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), an Amazon archer, whose rather interesting backstory is barely sketched out; Tydeus (Askel Hennie), a feral battle-loving warrior; Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), a teller of Hercules’ tales – or the group’s P.R. horn; and Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), a prophet who foretells outcome of battles, but is bad at guessing the time of his own impending death.
Hercules and co. are drafted into service of Thrace’s King Cotys (John Hurt), who asks him to coach his barbaric, untrained men to conquer a predominant army terrorizing the terrain. Coty’s is old, has a country in near ruin, a husbandless daughter Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) whose son, a wide-eyed innocent, is not yet wise to be the next king.
Having Hercules, the son of a Greek god Zeus, could well be a morale booster, at the very least. And of course, there is (a little) more to the story than that.
War Games; Debunking Fables
The buoyancy and straightforwardness embedded in Hercules’ filmmaking genes makes the movie, a very crafty deviant indeed. The disguise of fluffy entertainment, and humor, is at times just too convincing a ploy to cover the movie’s drawbacks.
“He’s the son of Zeus – yes “THE” Zeus” the narrator tells us in the beginning of the movie, as if there were some other Zeus than Zeus – the god of gods in the Greek pantheon.
Despite this proclamation, the fables, and miracles – and even fantastic creatures – take a backseat to simple minded war-strategies, and an apparent plot. The screenplay by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos is keener on shifting its narrative priorities – and what would have been the story’s more R-rated edge.
Hercules’ legend is left to a fast flashback, where he grapples and chokes two snakes with his bare hands, kills a hydra in a swamp and tears out the fur of an extra-large Nemean lion (because, of course, anything less than extra-large just wouldn’t do in a 3D event movie).
Anyways, Mr. Johnson is charismatic enough pull off wearing the lion’s skinned head as a head ornament (in most cases, it’s an alternative for his dangly, wrangled hair) – and yes, it does look weird, but the awkwardness (ported over from the comic book), works. Mr. Johnson is, of course, the center-point of this fable, but even then there’s a certain lack of imagination in the way his character is dealt with.
The screenplay lays down the ground work, sets up events, but never ventures to unexplored grounds. At times like Mr. McShane’s character Hercules’ group is a troop of charlatan’s, banking on myths to keep their employment rates high (I guess any publicity is necessary to run any thriving business).
The movie (as the comic was) is more interested in debunking myths and keeping it real: Did Hercules really kill his wife and children in one of his rages? (The wife, by the way, is played by model Irina Shayk, with no speaking parts); Did he really kill those fantastic beasts (the hydra’s decapitated head which Hercules brings is little more than a snake-skinned mask)? As a demi-God does he bleed when cut in battle? Was he really the son of Zeus?
This fresh angle helps keep interest alive, especially when you see the end coming a mile away.
Made with Practiced Regularity
Mr. Ratner, and his regular cinematographer Dante Spinotti, have a practiced way of visual presentation. Most of Mr. Ratner’s shots are limited to medium close angles and minimum camera moves, always keeping his actors in frame, intercutting only when necessary. This closeness subconsciously creates a familiarity to the characters and their journey (however grand or meek) keeps our attention in check.
Apart from that, technically there is really nothing spectacular about Hercules: the CGI (computer generated imagery), has a seen-it-all-way-too-much negligence to it. The Production Design by Jean-Vincent Puzos is dimly lit and featureless (though the lack of light is a no brainer because of olden times), and the Editing by Mark Helfrich and Julia Wong keep events – and scenes – well stitched, without seams.
Mr. Ratner does have an eye for military staging, which thankfully, prevent inertia for settling in when the movie goes battle-heavy.
The Final Word
Hercules is a worth-your-while cinema expense. Frankly, I’ve seen a lot worse in the same genre (and Mr. Johnson, like always, is very very likable). It’s not really original, but, hey, in this day and age of cliché, I guess any port in a storm would do.
Distributed by Paramount and MGM, Hercules is rated PG-13 – featuring big battles, humor, and a battle-weary hero with big sad eyes.
Directed by Brett Ratner; Produced by Beau Flynn, Barry Levine and Mr. Ratner; Written by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos; Cinematography by Dante Spinotti; Edited by Mark Helfrich and Julia Wong; Music by Fernando Velázquez; production design by Jean-Vincent Puzos.
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Tobias Santelmann, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan, John Hurt, Rebecca Ferguson and Irina Shayk.