Greece is the word for the second time in 2014, with yet another take on the legend of the loin-clothed muscleman, who was born with the strength of a god but the weakness of feeling human suffering.
Adapted from Steve Moore’s graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars, the screenplay by Evan Spiliotopoulos (a dab hand at bargain sequels to Disney fairy tales) and Ryan Condal advances the comic’s deconstruction themes. Playing down the more mythological aspects of Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) and emphasising his warrior mettle instead means that the multi-headed monster Hydra is revealed to be nothing more than masked men, the three-headed hell-hound Cerberus a trick-of-the-light trio of wolves and the Erymanthian Boar merely a giant pig. It’s the constant elaboration and embellishment by Hercules’s nephew, storyteller Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), that keeps the hero demigod’s exploits in the awed public’s minds – but it’s an image he finds hard to live up to.
It’s that reputation that now finds Hercules a highly paid mercenary, cashing in on past glories (especially his famous 12 Labours) with a five-man army of faithful followers who owe him their lives. Alongside Iolaus is strategist Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), seer Amphiaraus (an agreeably laconic Ian McShane), feral Tydeus (Aksel Hennie from Headhunters) and Amazon Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal, looking like a Norwegian Nicole Kidman). Together they undertake a bold campaign to end the bloody civil war in Thrace and return King Cotys (a forceful John Hurt) to his throne. But after training the Thracian army in ruthlessness and fighting skills, Hecules realises they have been double-crossed by the megalomaniac Cotys, whose true intentions are empire-building on a massive scale.
This didn’t have to do too much more than be simply competent to win the battle over the recent debacle The Legend of Hercules, and director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, X-Men – the Last Stand) at least leavens the somewhat plodding story with a winning air of Boy’s Own adventure joviality, trim emotional flashbacks to Hercules’s past family traumas and a nice line in self-deprecating humour – which McShane wins hands down with the running gag of continually predicting his own battlefield death.
Predictably, the epic, Cecil B DeMille-style quality of the expertly choreographed combat spectacle is the key element that elevates this revisionist fable above most of its cardboard sword-and-sandal ilk. The battles, augmented with less CGI than usual, have a verisimilitude that recent blockbusters have lacked. There’s too much “sword pointing from the screen” action because of 3D viewing, but the visuals are nevertheless thrilling and exciting.
Proving that nothing much has really changed in the hero’s iconography since Steve Reeves burst onto the Italian exploitation landscape in the original 1957 Hercules, Johnson wrests the usual thick chains from rocks, topples statues and stops charging horses in their tracks.
Actors playing Hercules have been a varied bunch to say the least – from the aforementioned earnest Reeves and his acceptable contemporary Reg Park, to the unmentionable Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno. But The Rock has enough acting chops to match the necessary musclebound physique, and his reading of the mere mortal struggling to live up to his own lore in the volatile ancient world is about as good as it can get for this type of picture. It’s utter tosh, but impossible not to enjoy.