With Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes. Written by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos. Directed by Brett Ratner. Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity. 98 minutes.
Another “Hercules” movie? Already? (Oh, did you forget about “The Legend of Hercules” which briefly graced area screens last January?) If you’re skeptical, you might be surprised that so were the film’s distributors. It wasn’t shown to the press for review purposes until an hour before it opened to the public.
Usually that’s a sign of a movie that’s a disaster, but sometime it’s a sign that the studio didn’t know what they had. This HERCULES turns out to be a decent movie not about ancient mythology, but about war and about using the power of myth to lead men. Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is reputed to be the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, making him a demi-god. As we’re told in the opening narration, he performed a series of labors against supernatural beasts, cementing his reputation.
In fact, he and his small band of fighters are mercenaries, ready to be hired if the price is right. Among them are Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), a seer so powerful he has predicted his own death, Autolycus (Rufus Sewall), a fierce warrior who has known Hercules since boyhood, and Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), an archer with unerring aim. They are hired by Lord Cotys (John Hurt), the leader of Thrace, to train an army and lead the fight against Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann), who is on the march against Thrace.
There are some twists and turns in the plot, but the theme is how Hercules and his team inspire the troops, mostly farmers and shopkeepers. We also get a sense of how battles can be won against overwhelming odds through the use of strategy, such as holding back forces to be released against the unsuspecting enemy at just the right moment. When things take a turn for the worse, Hercules draws on the strength of his own legend–and the people who believe in him–to rouse himself at a time when all seems lost.
This is a Hercules with no supernatural or magical moments–except in the opening flashback describing the legend–but about war and, to some extent, about its use as a political tool. For those there for the fighting, there is plenty of action along the way. This may be the most violent film since the “300” movies, but it’s also about the reasons for the violence and whether it’s justified.
Dwayne Johnson may never do Hamlet, but he continues to stretch as an actor and given his build he’s a natural fit for Hercules. He shows us that heroism isn’t only about what one does on the battlefield. He’s surrounded by a great cast, from Joseph Fiennes and John Hurt as political leaders willing to use Hercules, and Sewall and McShane making wry observations along the way. Reece Ritchie is also a plus as Iolaus, Hercules’s story-telling nephew who wants to be a warrior. There’s no love story here, and so the women–primarily Berdal and Rebecca Ferguson as Lord Cotys’s daughter–are more involved in, respectively, the fighting or the palace intrigue.
“Hercules” is a solid entry as an action/war movie set in ancient times, letting us thrill at the violence but also making sure we see the consequences of it as well. In exploring the power of myth to inspire men to fight, it aspires to be something more than just a lot of guys clanging swords, shields, and clubs. It may be the most unexpected film of the summer.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.