The premise seemed to be laid out in pure cookie-cutter fashion from Hercules’ promotional material. Another in a long line of recent Grecian mythology to be turned into an over-stylized and dark fantasy pseudo epic. Ever since Frank Miller and Zach Snyder collaborated for the mega successful 300, Hollywood has been dead set on retelling some of human histories most hallowed legend, stemming from ancient Green and Roman lore, but adding a new age twist to them. Recent films like the Jason Momoa-led Conan stand as the perfect example of how not to handle this. All accounts had Hercules heading in the same direction as that ill-fated attempt, though thankfully (and surprisingly) director Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand, Rush Hour) was able to side-step that land mine and turn out a very pleasing experience.
The biggest surprise in Hercules is that it turns the legend on it’s head, and the dark fantasy imagery that was so heavily featured in the trailers is mostly used as a smoke screen. While history speaks of Hercules as the half human, half god son of Zeus, possessing strength unequaled by any man, this film takes that story and makes it just that. Hercules is never clearly fleshed out as the son of Zeus, in fact he himself doesn’t know if the legend is true. Instead the hero has become something of a con-man, using a team of highly skilled warriors that loyally follow him into every battle as a smoke screen to help build his legend and make him a more desirable and well-paid mercenary.
Dwayne Johnson may be the only real standout role, his charm and charisma have never been in question, dating all the way back to his days as a professional wrester in the WWE/WWF, though admittedly even he has to struggle through some very corny dialogue as the titular character, and his loyal followers all seem to fall into a very familiar role that film goers have long become accustomed to in this type of historic wartime epic. Hercules is a likable tortured soul who must search within himself to find the strength to overcome his past demons while inspiring an entire army of untrained farmers to defend their home.
The closest parallel I could draw to Hercules is 2004’s King Arthur, which I felt was an underrated film that had it’s issues while remaining enjoyable. In both movies, the history behind legend is given a more realistic basis, and both time it ends out more satisfying for it. The characters are all rehashes of archetypes we’ve seen many times, and the setting seems to lack the certain epic nature that you would want for a character as lauded as this, but thanks to some keen directorial decisions and a nifty bit of visual sleight of hand, Hercules ends up carving out a comfortable narrative to match it’s aesthetic appeal. If you can suffer through a few poorly choreographed moments and a less than spectacular script, the swift pace and pleasing new take on the story will have you walking out of the theater with an unexpected smile, which is all I can ask for a mid-july action movie which lacks the brand recognition of a big franchise attached to it.