Mythological characters have always been staples of the movie industry. While the Norse god, Thor may be the current poster boy the heavily muscular screen deities, there was one that has been a perennial favorite for decades, Hercules. Almost every actor with an overdeveloped physique has had returned playing this demigod. Arnold Schwarzenegger to Lou Ferrigno and going back to the 50s with Steve Reeves, this most famous strongman has even spilled over to television with a very popular series. In fact, the word that has come to mean extraordinary strength is Herculean. Wikipedia has devoted an entire page to list the various incarnations of Hercules in the media. Even though the audience has just witnessed the release of ‘The Legend of Hercules’ earlier this year has not deterred the studios from giving it another go. Once again, the offering is released in 3-D and is heavily dependent upon incredible action sequences. The two main factors that have the most influence on how the film retells the myth, whether or not they adhere to the traditional origin story and, perhaps most importantly, the personality of the actor portraying Hercules. In this latest incarnation, portraying this iconic figure forced to a former professional wrestler, previously known as ‘The Rock’, but now goes by his actual name of Dwayne Johnson. As will elaborate on later on in this consideration, the personality has developed during his migration from the wrestling ring to the soundstage makes a lot of difference in how the film comes across to the audience. Immediately
Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is a leader of a ragtag band of mercenaries, traveling around hiring out their skills and working for any chance to put coin in their purse. Besides, their incredibly strong leader, the band consists of Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), deadly with a spear, while doubling as a prophet, Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), whose skill with the blade of a knife borders on artistry. There is also a feral warrior who attacks with unbelievable savagery, Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) and, to assist in balancing the testosterone driven cast, the Amazon archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). A touch of nepotism is added to the band inclusion of Hercules nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). He helps chronicle the group’s exploits as a storyteller. Providing a degree of continuity, most of these characters are reasonably close to their actual mythological progenitors. The story here continues this by providing a back story for this Hercules, one of many illegitimate sons of Zeus, as having been driven insane at the completing his legendary twelve labors only to be betrayed by Hera, which resulted in him murdering his wife Megara (Irina Shayk) and their children in a fit of crazed rage during his stay with King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes). Rejecting his Olympian heritage Hercules lives among mortals, but is still plagued by dreams of the guardian of the underworld, Cerberus.
King Cotys (John Hurt) of Thrace dispatches his daughter, Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), to engage the services of Hercules. The job entails training and army in order to best defend against the forces of particularly cruel warlord, Rheseus (Tobias Santelmann). The job appears straightforward and Hercules commits his band to the task. The price for their successful training, Thracian army was something they could not turn down; their weight in gold. After being introduced to the commander of the Army, General Sitacles (Peter Mullan), the arduous training begins. Wisely, the film does not linger overly long on the actual training. Combat exercises under these circumstances are pretty much the same there’s no rationale for the lane with the audience really wants to see; battles. In order to test the mettle of the newly trained troops, they are led into battle against the conveniently local band the barbarians, who are readily defeated. Hercules and Sitacles are ready for their army to take on their main foe, Rheseus. After he is vanquished is taken back to the King to be tortured and humiliated, a common fate for routed enemy, and that era. After a couple of satisfying action sequences, it is now time to introduce the more emotionally driven subplot. Hercules notices that Ergenia is not completely in agreement with the treatment. As it turns out, a father was aggressively expanding his kingdom’s territory and Sitacles’ lands were targeted as his next acquisition. The warlord was simply defending himself. The only reason she was going along with her father’s actions was to protect her son Arius as and to the throne. Hercules dark past comes back to haunt him, when he discovers that King Cotys has formed an alliance with King Eurystheus.
There is one scene that is practically mandatory in a film, such as this; Hercules has to be captured and chained only to have his anger increase to the point when strains against his bonds, snapping the links of the chains. In order to focus his anger to such a little breaking point, it requires a threat, not to Hercules himself, but rather to a woman. Ergenia, is about to be executed betraying her father in a particularly gruesome fashion; being torn apart by wolves. Having the preternaturally strong protagonist fighting against savage beasts to save the damsel in distress is always a crowd pleaser. They also managed to work in Hercules wielding a suitably ungainly piece of masonry as a weapon.
As alluded to above, casting Mr. Johnson in the titular role went a long way to helping this movie work. Since leaving the world of professional wrestling, Johnson was obviously under the guidance of a management team that new their business. Following a career path that was successfully navigated by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Johnson avoided becoming overly associated with musclebound characters. His resume demonstrates a dynamic mix of genres that run the gamut from the tough, determined hero to comedies, most of which were quite suitable for family viewing. Apparently Schwarzenegger went this route as a promise to his mother who didn’t particularly like the violence in many of his films. With Mr. Johnson, the technique is exceptionally well utilized. His experience in such a wide variety of categories as sharpened in his acting skills to the point where he can play a character like Hercules with far greater nuance the most portrayals. He is able to infuse a comic element into the story without it coming across as contrived. Watching him and his comedies, as well as his SNL stints, it is obvious that this man has talents considerably greater than most bodybuilder types attempting to cross over into film. His famous sly grin and stilted eyebrow go a long way to humanizing the iconic powerhouse.
Despite his exceptional strength, Johnson does not have to bear the entire weight of the film on his own shoulders; the cast is built with exceptional actors. John Hurt has been twice nominated for an Academy Award. In a career that has spanned some six decade and almost 200 films, Mr. Hurt brings a touch of class to any role he assumes. Ian McShane is a true chameleon of an actor who received his training in part at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. When a troupe of this stature is augmented by character actors in constant demand like Joseph Fiennes and Rufus Sewell you have an ensemble that is far above what is commonly found in an action driven movie. The story is what is found in this genre; an excuse to gather the characters together to do battle in a spectacular fashion. The director and his cinematographer did manage to avoid the most common pitfalls attributed to epic 3D flicks. They minimize the use of the standard use of contrived ‘in your face’ shots that feel obligated to push objects out towards the viewers. The use of depth is significantly more natural in its look and feel. However, the blacks are somewhat degraded when compared to the 2D version. Fortunately, it is simple to make such comparisons. The three disc set dedicates the first disc to the 3D edition and the second to the 2D variation. This disc contains both the theatrical and extended cuts. The final disc is a DVD copy. While not great it delivers as promised; an entertaining, action filled movie.