Creaky Plot, Great Action In ‘Hercules’ Movie


I was pleasantly surprised by Hercules. It is definitely a B-level picture, but it is an entertaining one that sets mythology on its ear. Hercules might be the son of Zeus (yes, that Zeus, as the narrator says in the movie’s first line) but then again, well, who knows? Director Brett Ratner provides enough action — not to mention gags — to last through all 97 minutes.

One of my friends is a sword and sandals film nut. He took a whole group of us to the movies and paid as a way of ensuring that everyone he knows saw the film. I was not all that certain I wanted to see Hercules, but did enjoy it. I also feel guilty, a bit, for enjoying it.

Employing serious actors of the ability of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson helped ensure there was just about no gravitas in the film. Yet the story was not a bad one; it actually had a moral tone. Hercules (Johnson) and his companions (an addition that seems to have filled in what those old myths missed) are mercenaries. All he and his buddies seem to want is one last big payday so they can move out to the Black Sea and retire. Hercules is tired and haunted by dreams about his murdered wife and children, who many believe he killed. He is hired by Ergenia, daughter of Lord Kotys of Thrace (John Hurt), who wants him to put down an evil sorcerer who is ravaging villages. Herc and friends go there and begin training the losers the king is using. They actually get them able to fight and, with the help of the mercenaries, actually win the big battle.

Hercules returns to the lord’s castle, where he soon learns that it is the lord who is the bad guy and is in league with a former friend, Eurystheus the king of Athens. After being betrayed, Hercules is captured and is taunted by his old friend that he was the one who had murdered the hero’s family as a way of ruining him. Of course, in the end, the hero wins by using his enormous strength and the bad guys are destroyed. As if there were any other possible outcome.

The potential for interesting drama was enormous. The ideas of working for good vs. evil, the sleaziness of politicians, are well-tested in drama going back to pretty much the time of Hercules. Unfortunately, most of what we see and hear in this film is simplistic. On the other hand, they did make some good plot points.

Ratner was smart enough to keep the dialogue somewhat cynical. The quips often helped move past some of the creakier elements of the plot. The cast was surprisingly effective. Johnson wisely was given a lot of action and straightforward dialogue. That allowed Ian McShane as Amphiaraus, a prophet fighting by his side, to steal just about every scene he was in. Convinced he was about to die and never quite making it, he serves as the wise-guy narrator who makes a lot of nonsense pull together.

Others who did well as companions include Rufus Sewell as the most mercenary of the companions. Aksel Hennie plays Tydeus beautifully, more wretched than ferocious while keeping a fearsome aspect. Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as the Amazon archer Atalanta is more than simply a pretty face and nice figure, but an intelligent and moral warrior. Three cheers for mythology’s woman power. Reece Ritchie as storyteller Iolaus (maybe a salute to a key character in the old TV series) is also good. Rebecca Ferguson does well as the daughter of the evil king.

The actors playing the bad guys really get to have fun. Hurt is his usual evil self, and Joseph Fiennes is scary as the Athenian ruler. He seems like such a modern political leader. Peter Mullan as the evil general is also very good.

The movie was enjoyable, far more so than many of the other films I have sat through this summer. The plot is creaky, but it still provides a lot of entertainment. The battle scenes are really good and, for a change, do reflect the methods of ancient times.

If you have fairly little to do one day or evening, you could do worse than to go see this movie.