‘Hercules’: Dud about a demigod

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For 21st Century Media

Who was Hercules?
In classic Greek mythology, Zeus came down from Mt. Olympus and impregnated a beautiful female mortal, Alcmene. The product of this extramarital dalliance was Heracles, whose name was adapted by the Romans to Hercules.
This demigod was born with prodigious strength. Zeus’ wife, Hera, was consumed with rage at her husband’s infidelity. She dispatched a pair of snakes to kill the neonate in his crib. However, baby Hercules strangled them. As an adult, Hercules became the subject of many adventures, which took him throughout the ancient Greco-Roman world. His single-handed feats were reduced to a canonical account, The Twelve Labors of Hercules.
Set circa 400 B.C., the new Dwayne Johnson vehicle, “Hercules,” starts with a potentially interesting premise. Instead of using Greek mythology, it is based on Steve Moore’s carefully-researched graphic novel, “Hercules: The Thracian Wars.” Moore consciously deconstructed the Hercules legend.

A screen capture from the movie trailer for "Hercules" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFqY089piQ4

A screen capture from the movie trailer for “Hercules” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFqY089piQ4

A product of Zeus’s adulterous indiscretion? Not exactly-the film provides Hercules with a radically revised pedigree. He was an orphan, who, as a child, had wandered the streets of Athens.
After serving in the Greek army, he assembled a close-knit band of mercenaries. Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) was a fellow orphan, whose friendship with Hercules dates back to childhood. He has become a deadly knife-thrower. Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) supposedly has the gift of prophecy. How does his prescience make him a capable fighter? I never quite figured that one out. Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) is an Amazon, who is a skilled archer. The diminutive Tydeus (Aksel Hennie from the lamentably under-seen “Headhunters”) hails from Thebes. The facially disfigured character has been so traumatized by battle that he has been rendered mute. Tydeus suffers such vivid nightmares that, whenever he sleeps, Hercules has to chain him up. Rounding out the sextet is Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), Hercules’ supposed nephew. If Hercules was a parentless street urchin, how did he acquire a blood relative? In any event, Hercules forbids Iolaus from joining in battle. His function is restricted to being a chronicler of Hercules’ accomplishments. Iolaus concocts apocryphal anecdotes, which are spread throughout the realm. The mere thought of opposing anyone with supposedly divine powers helps intimidate enemy armies into submission.
Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) approached Hercules on behalf of her father, King Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt). His kingdom is under siege by invading troops under the brutal warlord, Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). Ergenia implores Hercules and his band for help. Will they to come to the aid of the embattled kingdom and train its rag-tag army of farmers and merchants?
So, what do we have here as Hercules’ comrades in arms? A old codger of a soothsayer; an undersized victim of PTSD; and an even scrawnier amanuensis, who doesn’t even carry a weapon. That leaves only a woman and a glib metrosexual to potentially back up Hercules with any sort of combat skills. We’re not exactly talking the cadre of mercenary macho men from “The Magnificent Seven.”

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Peter Mullan as Sitacles in a scene from "Hercules." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Kerry Brown)

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Peter Mullan as Sitacles in a scene from “Hercules.” (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Kerry Brown)

By contrast, Dwayne Johnson has never appeared more formidable. Johnson has always been a big, strong guy. However, back in his early days as a professional wrestler, Johnson, aka The Rock, wasn’t particularly cut. At times, he even looked a bit pudgy. At 42, Johnson undertook a grueling, eight month training regimen in Budapest. He emerged with a remarkably powerful physique. It makes the 6’4,” 260-pound Johnson perfectly cast as in the role of Hercules. By comparison, he makes vintage Arnold Schwarzenegger (who made his screen debut as the character in 1969’s “Hercules in New York”) seem like a puny wimp.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s bulging biceps (we’re talking tree trunks here) don’t compensate for the film’s myriad shortcomings. To begin with, the derivative screenplay by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, is a narrative mess. It jumps all over the place without any discernible rhyme or reason. Although the film seeks to deconstruct the Hercules myth, it is beset with a disconcertingly muddled iconography. While it is thoroughly mediocre, this treatment of the subject character is vastly superior to Renny Harlin’s horrendous, “The Legend of Hercules.” That film, which came out earlier this year, was an unmitigated disaster.
At its outset, “Hercules” promises to reinvent the legend. Despite its ambitious aspirations, “Hercules” ends up being a dud about a demigod.

** PG-13 (for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity) 97 minutes.

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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