Legend has it that Hercules was presented with twelve rites, obstacles or challenges, set by the god Hera, Zeus’ wife, because she was upset about her husband’s infidelities with a human. The result of the tryst, a son, Hercules, was given these rites to earn his life. If he completed them, Hera would let him live.
Watching “Hercules (2014)”, director Brett Rattner’s new film, you might begin to get an idea of what the Greek mythological hero had to go through. Not because the film attempts to be overly accurate, but because it feels like a trial to sit through any Brett Rattner film.
The horses of Diamedes…
I don’t like Brett Rattner’s films. All smack of commercialism and don’t show the work of a director who is more interested in the artistic rather than the commercial aspects of any film he is working on. His resume consists of “Rush Hour” and the two sequels, a sequel to “X-Men”, and “Tower Heist”. He also contributed a couple of segments to compilation films. When you make a short film for a compilation, it is usually a pretty low-risk affair and an opportunity for the director and those involved to stretch themselves and create something different. Rattner’s contributions to these films are equally forgettable. His next project? “Beverly Hills Cop 4”. He also seems to be someone more interested in being famous. Look at his IMDB profile; it includes the price of his home. Now, look at the person who wrote the profile; Rattner himself. Why is it necessary to know how many millions he paid for his home? What connection does the price he paid for his home have on his work? It points to a frame of mind. It shows he may be more interested in the material than the artistic.
Watching Rattner’s films makes me feel like I am walking through horse stables that have never been cleaned. I wish I had the ability to divert two rivers to clear away the muck.
The boar of Erymanthus...
That rant aside, I liked “Hercules” more than I thought I would. Predictable? Yes. Corny? Of course. But the take on the story is interesting and that, along with pretty good special effects, helped to hold my interest. The film actually managed to get through my thick hide. But just a little bit.
The hydra of Lerna…
The hydra is a snake-like creature that is supposed to have hundreds of heads. As soon as Hercules chops one off, it grows another. In the film, it looks like they brought that number down to three. The dog Cerberus, another rite, has three heads, but the filmmakers seem to want to avoid any mention of Hades, where the dog lives, so he isn’t mentioned at all. Perhaps each of the Hydra's three heads represent the two writers and the director.
This battle is also, by far, the least convincing. The creature looks like he is created with Computer generated imagery (or CGI), which is more noticeable because all of the other creatures seem so real.
Written by Ryan Condal (his first feature) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (writer of many Disney direct-to-video sequels), the film begins with Iolaus (Reece Ritchie, “The Prince of Persia”, “The Lovely Bones”) telling the tale of Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) fighting some of the rites sent to him by Hera, the wife of Zeus, Hercules’ father. Hera isn’t too happy that her husband had an affair with a mortal, so she is determined to kill the bastard child. But he proves to be strong, very strong, and the tales of his exploits begin to precede him, allowing him to become a well-paid for-hire mercenary. But Hercules travels with an entourage- Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) who can sometimes see the future and wields a mean sword, Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), Hercules’ right hand man, Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), a mute brute who wields his mean temper like a weapon, Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), an Amazon who is good with arrows and Iolaus,his nephew who is a good storyteller, ready and willing to spread the legend of Hercules. They are hired by Lord Cotys (John Hurt), the king of Thrace, and General Sitacles (Peter Mullan) to lead a rag-tag army in a fight against Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann) who is advancing through the kingdom, threatening their way of life.
The hind of Ceryneia…
The golden deer is an animal Hercules was tasked to trap, not kill. An animal that moved very fast, according to legend.
When you go to a film called “Hercules”, you might rightfully expect to see another rendition of the legend. But the filmmakers aren’t so interested in remaining reverent to the legend; Iolaus tells us the tale in the opening minutes and we see all of the highlights, almost in a Cliff Notes fashion. Some of the highlights end before he even begins the battle, we simply see a creature advancing on him. It is an interesting way to approach the material, by casting doubt on it, making it a tall tale to the people hearing it in the film. These moments are handled well through the introduction of Iolaus and hearing him ‘tell the tale’.
These moments are fast-paced, but seem a little incomplete. When the film gets to the gamey meat of the story, the tale slows down. It no longer seems impossible to keep up, with the characters, with the rites, with any part of the film.
The Nemean Lion…
This tale is presented, very briefly, in the beginning of the film. And Herc wears the lion’s head and fur throughout the film. Or does he wear any lion’s head and fur?
But this also presents a conundrum. If ‘Hercules’ is the result of spreading tall tales, living on his reputation, who is this Hercules? Dwayne Johnson (he has apparently dropped ‘The Rock’ from his name, I suspect in a bid for legitimacy) plays Herc as a hired mercenary, someone who knows how to fight, but doesn’t necessarily have any super-human strength or powers. This makes him more human, more fallible, more of a mortal. And this also makes the idea of our hero’s background as a half-God less viable. Essentially, this Hercules is simply a really buff dude who may have had battles with some mythical beasts. But he can and will lead your army for some gold. While this is an interesting take on the story, it also makes the title character less special and less interesting.
The Cretan bull...
Johnson does what he can with the role, but it is a performance that we have seen many, many times before. There have been a number of films about a charismatic leader taking his rag-tag band of mercenaries into a situation that quickly becomes dangerous. Both modern and classic interpretations are virtually identical; a man, full of himself and riding the glory of past conquests, takes his loyal band of marauders into ‘one last job’ which will give them enough money (gold, farthings, doubloons, cash) to allow them to retire. The last job always presents the most challenges and pits our heroes against the most dangerous foe, before they then realize they have two or three additional challenges to overcome before reaching safety.
Johnson makes Hercules an earnest leader, who cares for the band of warriors who follow him around. But he just isn’t that interesting. He seems a bit timid, when what we really want from Dwayne Johnson playing Hercules is a bull running through the streets. I mean, come on, Johnson was literally made for the role.
The birds of Stymphalus...
Ian McShane does a nice job of injecting a moment or two of levity into the otherwise serious tale. Amphiaraus is quickly established as someone who can see the future and McShane wrings a few laughs out of this.
Rufus Sewell plays the business manager and voice of reason in the group. But Autolycus is loyal to Hercules and willing to fight to the death to protect his friend.
Aksel Hennie plays Tydeus, a mean brute who seems to be more animalistic than the others. He also doesn’t speak, mentally damaged by events in his past. Because he doesn’t speak, we don’t learn or see a lot of his character, snippets of his life revealed by others, punctuated by his haunted eyes.
Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) is probably the least interesting because she is the most stereotypical to this type of story. A tough-as-nails female warrior (the filmmakers go the extra step and claim she is an Amazon) who has to prove she is as tough as the men she fights alongside.
John Hurt is good as Lord Cotys, the leader of Thrace and Peter Mullan adds the right level of skepticism and jealousy to his portrayal of General Siticles. Unfortunately, anyone who has seen a film like this, heck, any film, will be able to see the ‘twist’ involving their characters coming a mile away.
All of these character actors, some with long, respected careers, might lead you to expect performances with more passion, something creating more noise to rattle us out of our movie theater seats. Instead, they all come off as rather timid. Barely enough to scare a pigeon out of its roost.
The apples of Hesperides...
Some may think I am expecting too much. But filmmaking is an art in both literal and figurative terms. Part of the art is asking the right people to be part of the project. Because Brett Rattner is involved, I would expect this version to be a little more tongue-in-cheek, especially with the involvement of The Rock. But both play it fairly straight.
As a straight-on rendition of the legend, "Hercules" never really achieves the level of suspense or gravitas to make it work.
A 'good' version of "Hercules" is what we have here. The 'great' version seems to be as hard found as the apples of Hesperides.