Okay, I’ll get this out of the way right at the front: This is NOT the movie the trailer advertises. If you want to see Hercules performing the Twelve Labors, if you want to see him fighting monsters, dealing with gods, and burning the heads off of a hydra, that’s not this movie. I’m confident in saying that 99% of the monster-fighting in the movie is shown in the trailer. Pretty much all of THAT is in flashback told via an unreliable narrator, and takes place within the first five minutes. Also: no gods. None. Zeus is mentioned. Hera gets a statue. That’s it. Essentially it’s yet another movie that decides to tell tales based on Classical mythology by stripping out 90% of the stuff that makes Classical mythology so interesting.
I hate that.
Next, let’s make Star Wars without the Force. Let’s make Lord of the Rings without elves, or dwarves, or wizards, with the orcs a bunch of dirty mercenaries and the Ring just some symbol of power. Oh, and the Ents are just guys pretending to be trees.
Let’s make a Superman who’s just a regular guy, and a Sherlock Holmes tale where Sherlock is an idiot and Watson is the real genius. (Okay, bad example, someone made that and it was actually rather amusing.) I could go on with a discussion of the pros and cons of such alterations, but I think you get my point, and I actually DO have positive things to say about this movie, so let’s get to that.
This is actually a decent movie. Once I got over my disappointment (seriously? The hydra is just a few guys in lizard masks?!) and tried to enjoy the movie on its own terms, I found there was some value to it. It’s not a brilliant masterpiece, but nor is it a horrible abomination. It’s engaging in its way, with some good bits, John Hurt, and enjoyable action. (I also just realized there wasn’t any horrible shaky-cam in this film–at least not to the point where I noticed it, and that’s always a good thing in my book.)
The movie takes place after completion of the Twelve Labors, with Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) and a small band of fellows serving as traveling mercenaries to earn enough gold to retire. Except those Twelve Labors? All done with the help of those fellows, against things far less legendary (did I mention the “hydra” bandits?), and spun into legend by Hercules’s nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). It’s all a P.R. campaign. Granted, Hercules is still a pretty damned good fighter, not to mention a walking mass of muscle. There’s plenty to build into legend. And it’s that legend that gets hired by Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to defend Thrace against a savage army of hypnotic magic and centaurs led by the fearsome Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). (Spoiler: They’re not really centaurs, and it’s not really magic.) 😉
Where the plot goes from there, I won’t say, but it was enough of a journey to keep me interested. The concept of a shield wall and formation fighting plays a part in the plot, and it was fun to see those formations actually used instead of just talked about and abandoned after 30 seconds (I’m lookin’ at you, 300…). Granted, Herc and his fellows are dashing around outside the shield wall and should rightfully have been slaughtered, but we’ll give them a pass, ’cause they’re heroes.
As for the actors themselves, Johnson gives a serviceable Hercules. The others play their roles with no complaints from me, either. (And, of course, John Hurt does it best.) I’ll be the first to admit I’m a poor judge of acting. I can only say if a performance strikes me as really great or really terrible, and there was no terrible here.
Hercules doesn’t deliver what the trailer promises, but it does, at least, deliver something worth staying for when you realize you’ve fallen victim to the bait & switch. So at least there’s that. It’s worth a look, though you might want to wait for it to come out on video.
Looking for a tale with ACTUAL mythological monsters and the Greek gods as real characters? You’ll find them both in Zeus Is Dead: A Monstrously Inconvenient Adventure, set in a version of our world where reality TV show heroes slay actual monsters and the gods have their own Twitter feeds.
Incidentally, I’m not dead set against legends with the magic removed. My favorite version of the Arthurian legend is Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, in which Merlin accomplishes most of the “magic” via intelligent, non-magical means (though it’s not without at least a little bit of mysticism in the margins).