Saturday, July 26, 2014

I saw Hercules (once more, in new form)

When I reviewed the Renny Harlin/Kellan Lutz "Legend of Hercules" in Jan '14, I honestly didn't give a hoot if the critics (or even the general public) fancied it. I just wanted to see a new sword-and-sandal flick and basically got what I expected. This has also been my attitude toward Brett "X-Men: Last Stand" Ratner's take on the hero, and history has essentially repeated itself (surprise, surprise, the critic's ain't kind), though the Ratner film is considerably larger and more special-effects laden than the Harlin effort. 

This new entry, simply called "Hercules", is based on the late Steve Moore's acclaimed comic, "Hercules: the Thracian Wars" (adapted for the screen by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos) and enlists the expressive Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson as the "Son of Zeus". In this particular retelling, classic mythology seamlessly blends with modern, cinematic sensibilities. In this regard, though the film is relegated to ancient Greece, its underlying vibe is often contemporary, particularly when enhanced by its streamlined, CGI'd trimmings and use of the vernacular.

The story initially focuses on samples of Herc's twelve labors: an enduring part of the legend, even if such generally gets bypassed on screen (the Luigi Cozzie/Lou Ferrigno version perhaps being the most meticulous in catering to it). At any rate, in the event one had any doubt of his formidable stature, these fleeting excursions (though seemingly implied exaggerations) quickly establish Herc's renowned, physical attributes.

The story then picks up years later, with a more cynical Herc, who though typically affable, is haunted by the mysterious deaths of his wife and sons (a disturbing plot element which stems from his actual origins). He also sustains himself as a mercenary, hired ultimately by the Thracian King Cotys (John Hurt), through his enchanting daughter, Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), to ward off an enigmatic tyrant, Rhesus (Tobias Santlemann), who some claim is a centaur with the ability to recruit men via mental means.

Though one might still assume the task an effortless one for our muscular hero, Rhesus' foreboding image alone makes the task a threatening gamble. Thankfully, with a little help from his intrepid friends, including the intuitive Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), Herc tenaciously meets the challenge head on, while attempting to rekindle the unswerving honor he once exuded before his family's demise. 

Johnson is naturally impressive in the towering lead: a capable thespian, having accomplished great variance in his characterizations, from family adventures ("Journey 2: Mysterious Island") to action thrills ("The Scorpion King"). Perhaps the latter is where he best excels, and on that basis, this tale suits him well.

On the essential character-actor side, Hurt and McShane both shine (which should go without saying): their combined presence bringing an air of sophistication to the production, justly capping Herc's brawls with beasts (the three-headed Cerberus, a lightning-fast hydra, a mammoth lion and boar, but are they spectral or real?), plus a slew of relentlessly fierce, though inevitably outmatched human contenders. 

On the beauty side, Ferguson remains perpetually pleasant, as does Herc's amazon companion, Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal): neither of whom ever becomes an amorous hindrance. In contrast, the film is populated by many ugly and rough-edged types, who add just the right dash of menace to the proceedings. 

Like the graphic novel upon which it's based, this retelling is unique compared to most Herc incarnations: his lion headgear being the most visual distinction. Also, there is a question as to whether Herc is just an amazingly strong guy or in fact, the demi-god most perceive him to be. The film also twists matters in distinguishing who is good and bad, and it's up to Herc and his friends to come to terms with such, relying on their faith and convictions to do so.

On this basis, Ratner's movie shouldn't be compared to the recent Harlin/Lutz version, or for that matter, the Steve Reeves and Reg Park classics, let alone Sam Raimi/Kevin Sorbo's "Legendary Journeys". This one, at best and most, is a homage to them all and yet radically deviates from them, propping a humanistic view over the supernatural.

Do yourself a favor and just go with the flow with this one. The film certainly has all the required ingredients for sure-fire fun: a larger-than-life champion, magnificently choreographed battle scenes, offbeat characterizations and eye-popping creatures. If you have an opportunity to view it (and you're not inclined to side with high-brow pretentiousness), you're likely find both your time and money well spent. 

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