Film review: HERCULES, from Built For Speed

Many cinemagoers might have feared that Hercules would be yet another moronic, CGI-drenched video game-like action fest.  Despite the fact that it is mostly composed of sword-swinging battle scenes and that it stars former pro-wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the title role, this vaguely post-modern take on the Hercules legend is surprisingly enjoyable.

In a plot that resembles Seven Samurai, Hercules is as a roving mercenary who, with his feral band of warriors, traverses Ancient Greece looking for adventure and a big pay day. When Cotys the ageing King of Thrace (John Hurt) and his stunning daughter Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) offer Hercules and his mercenary gang the opportunity to train the residents of Thrace for battle against the supposedly evil despot Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann) Herc sees major dollar signs.  The ensuing wars test the will and the beliefs of the tormented Hercules and reveal to him much to about the evils of politics.

Running throughout the film is the theme of illusion and deception and a conscious and even comical attempt to de-mythologise Hercules.  The film suggests that despite his phenomenal strength and fighting prowess Hercules isn’t quite the figure of legend.  His nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) acts as his spin doctor constantly embellishing Hercules’ feats to terrify his enemies and boost his asking price as a mercenary.

Giving a deliberate comical edge to a pec-flexing sword and sandal epic perfectly suits the Rock’s screen persona and allows him to relish in the role of a violent yet amiable hero.  The Rock may never be Oscar material but he’s not just a lumbering muscle-man.  His acting has improved to the point where he is able makes Hercules a forceful, sympathetic if not compelling character.  He even manages to convey genuine and moving torment at the memory of his wife and children’s murder.  The wardrobe department could, however, have spared us the disturbing sight of the “The Rock” sauntering around in a leather miniskirt and top that looks very much like the outfit Freddy Mercury wore in the “I Want to Break Free” video.

Despite the comic diversions Hercules mostly works as an action film and provides an important lesson to other fantasy-based action movies in that battle scenes can involve real people and not just faceless hordes of cgi creatures.  The battles in Hercules are exciting, well-staged and include as many in-camera practical effects and bone-crunching stunt sequences as CGI.  Better-than-average art direction that includes some striking recreations of ancient Greek architecture also helps provide an impressive spectacle.

The masterstroke in this film, however is the casting of top drawer British actors in key roles. Ian McShane as Hercules’ main confidante and resident prophet Amphiaraus, Peter Mullan as an intense and menacing Thracian General and the legendary John Hurt as King Cotys, give this film a steroid shot of acting credibility.  A solid supporting cast, which includes Rufus Sewell as Hercules knife-wielding accomplice Autolycus, are given the opportunity to define their characters and make at least some impact on the audience.

The film is occasionally let down by ridiculous scenes such as “the Rock” bellowing “I am Hercules” or using the F-word in an Arnie-like quip but this is a better than average action romp.

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: Action/ Fantasy.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Brett Ratner.

Release date: 24th July 2014

Running time: 98 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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