(2014) Swords and Sandals (Paramount/MGM) Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, John Hurt, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, Tobias Santelmann, Peter Mullan, Rebecca Ferguson, Isaac Andrews, Joe Anderson, Stephen Peacocke, Nicholas Moss, Robert Whitelock, Christopher Fairbank, Irina Shayk, Barbara Palvin. Directed by Brett Ratner
Being a legend isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You have this high bar to live up to and the tales of your accomplishments can take on a mythic quality. When you’re Hercules, the son of Zeus, that can be doubly aggravating. It can also send you on a retreat from life.
Hercules (Johnson) has been living with his reputation most of his life. Freakishly strong, he wears a lion skin supposedly from the Lion of Nemea whom he slew as one of his twelve labors performed to get Hera off his back (Hera, the wife of Zeus, was none too pleased with the nascent godling from her husband’s loins). However, he employs his nephew Iolaus (Ritchie) to spread the tales of his legend – which makes his enemies fearful of what he can do. That can come in useful when you’re a mercenary.
Which is what Hercules has become. He was once under the employ of Athenian King Eurystheus (Fiennes) with a wife (Shayk) and children but after they were slaughtered and Hercules himself blamed for the heinous crime – which he can’t remember whether or not he had done – he was banished and wanders Greece accompanied by Iolaus, his right hand man Autolycus (Sewell), the prophet Amphiaraus (McShane) who is also a skilled fighter in his own right, the Amazon warrior Atalanta (Berdal) and the mute berserker Tydeus (Hennie). They make a formidable bunch.
They are given a job by Lord Cotys (Hurt) of Thrace whose land is in the midst of a bloody civil war. The dark, nefarious sorcerer Rhesus (Santelmann) has raised an army of demons and centaurs, burning down villages and massacring the inhabitants and bewitching the survivors to fight for him. Cotys’ daughter Ergenia (Ferguson) and her son Arius (Andrews) beseech the warrior for his help and he, taken by Ergenia’s giving nature, agrees to train the Thracian army to stand up to the rebel, with Cotys’ bemused General Sitacles (Mullan) somewhat skeptical about his success.
However, nothing is ever as it seems in Hercules’ world. He will have to become the hero of legend to save his crew and Thrace, and not just the legend invented by his nephew. In short, he must become Hercules, son of Zeus.
I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about the casting of Johnson as Hercules. He always seems to have a twinkle in his eye and a fairly laid back attitude as an action hero and I have always thought of Hercules as much more serious. No need to worry – Johnson makes an excellent Hercules. While I question the decision to have him wear a wig and fake beard, he certainly has the physique and he is a much better actor than most of the ones that have played Hercules in the past (although Kevin Sorbo was and is a terrific actor). I’d say that Johnson really carries the movie.
While the trailers show giant boars and lions and hydras and such, there is surprisingly little in the way of those sorts of special effects. That’s mainly because the graphic novel that the film is based on eschewed much of the mythological elements of Hercules’ story in favor of a more down to earth telling of his tale which is an original one.
I have to say that the movie is much more entertaining than I expected. Johnson’s natural charisma helps on that score, but Ratner, a director not known for subtlety, has a sure hand here and allows the characters to develop and make some headway. McShane, always dependable, is something of a mentor to Hercules and seems to be alone in knowing the truth of his tale. Sewell who often gets cast in villain roles gets a rare opportunity in a heroic cast and makes the most of it.
The fight scenes are well done and Hercules’ feats of strength are mostly believable here. It’s all mostly brute strength rather than agility and grace, but we get those from Bolso and Sewell in their sequences so it isn’t all skull crushing and horse throwing.
While the plot here is predictable (the plot twist that drives the last half of the movie is one you’ll see coming a mile away and the second half of the movie suffers as a result) and the dialogue tends towards the bombastic, this isn’t the kind of movie you go to see for the story. You go for the spectacle. You go for the action. And you go for the Rock. Finally, the Rock has come back to Thrace…
REASONS TO GO: The Rock is more cut than ever! Some nifty battlefield sequences. McShane and Sewell are entertaining.
REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Some of the dialogue is a bit creaky.
FAMILY VALUES: Battle violence, occasional expletives, some disturbing images and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to Johnson, his fake beard in the film is made of yak testicle hair.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clash of the Titans
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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