Hercules is one of the most famous mythical heroes in literature. His legend has spawned countless productions (even a Disney one) and there have been two different Hercules films released this year alone. With Renny Harlin’s widely panned effort in January choosing to go down the Gladiator/300 route, much pressure was applied to this the second effort, Brett Ratnor’s take on it. The slightly contentious casting of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as the leading man also ensured additional demand to be noteworthy for the right reasons.
The most famous of all of Hercules’ conquests was the twelve labours; tasks set by his stepmother, Hera, to get back at his father, Zeus, for fathering Hercules with a mortal mother. They were impossible to complete by anyone other than a God and are usually involved or alluded to within the re-telling of the myth. Ratnor’s film initially appears to be no different and we open with a disappointingly brief but entertaining montage of a handful of his labour accomplishments including defeating the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra and the Erymanthian Boar.
The film intensions seemingly established with an end-of-level boss approach, the film unexpectedly then switches post-Labours and focuses on Hercules’ efforts at training an army under King Cotys (John Hurt) in order to defeat a ruthless adversary, Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). Based on Steve Moore and Radical Comics’ creation, The Thracian Wars, here the story is allowed to develop but quickly reverts to the generic “little army that could” formula throughout Hercules’ tutelage and viewing interest threatens to wane.
Although the plot is solid enough, the unique concept this time round is all about Hercules credibility. Throughout, the film toys with Hercules’ heritage and his legendary status is questioned by almost everyone, not least by soothsayer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane). Is he actually a God or not? Hercules’ ambiguity and self-effacing nature reinforce this as well and Johnson’s casting is key; being one of the most modest and affable men in Hollywood reflecting in the believability of his character. It is a pleasant change to also see Johnson playing a goodie, given his usual type-casting of the muscle-bound antagonist.
Furthermore the audience are fed the narration by story-teller and Hercules’ nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) who is proven to not so much an unreliable narrator, but an embellisher of the speculation and rumours surrounding Hercules at that time. With Hercules’ heroic status in tatters after committing the gravest of sins, the integrity of his twelve labours are consequently questioned; with some of them disproved or given a reality check with a more plausible explanation. The Nemean Lion’s impenetrable hide is an example of this authenticity when it is pierced by a soldier during the first battle and the haunting imagery of Cerberus the three-headed dog is also cleverly disputed.
The rest of the cast is a surprise with a high-calibre of talent on display despite most having minor roles. Peter Mullan is Cotys’ right-hand man and Rufus Sewell plays Hercules’ close friend, Autolycus. Joseph Fiennes also features as King Eurystheus who is the one who Hercules serves whilst being forced to complete the Labours. Although Eurystheus has a major role in the myth, Fiennes is restricted to only a couple of scenes. Ultimately this is Johnson’s film though and the movie as a whole is an extremely pleasant surprise that warrants subsequent viewings.