First things first: The Rock IS Hercules. He’s long been a great action lead in search of a role worthy of him, and here, he’s found it. Hercules is no classic, but it’s never boring, and when Johnson bellows “I AM HERCULES!” towards the end, it’s very hard not to nod and agree.
Set after (most of) the Twelve Labours, the film has Hercules and his companions essentially working as a Dungeons & Dragons adventuring party, killing bad guys for fun and profit. They get recruited by King Cotys (John Hurt) to protect Thrace from the evil Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann), and from there the plot turns into a riff on Seven Samurai, with the professional warriors teaching farmers how to fight.
Like so many films based on Greek myth, Hercules is weirdly ambivalent about being a myth. It ditches all the magic and the gods don’t appear; Hercules may or may not be the son of Zeus, and Zeus may not even exist. The idea is that the story of Hercules’ deeds grew in the telling, so while he actually fought big animals with a team behind him, he told people that he was taking on magical beasts single-handed. It’s not a bad idea, but it would have been nice to see more stuff from the myths. At least the flashbacks to the Labours actually are to the stories told about Hercules rather than the “real events,” so we do get to see The Rock fight an elephant-sized lion and chop the heads off the Hydra.
Along with the action scenes, The Rock himself is the main reason to see the film. Johnson’s an extremely charismatic man, and he’s predictably charming as the mercenary trying to turn himself into a legend, while also capably expressing his grief at the death of his family, fortunately without it turning into angst. He’s also huge, and is just about the best person you could ask for to play a demigod and actually make it believable.
As for the battle sequences, with the exception of some occasionally gimmicky 3D, they’re extremely entertaining. They’re well shot with a good sense of geography, it’s never difficult to figure out what’s going on, and they’re pleasantly inventive as well. The use of actual phalanxes by the Thracian army is a nice touch, and the fact that chariots often turn the tide of battle is another enjoyable element from the myths. The final showdown is particularly fun, with a shirtless Hercules (*swoon*) channelling Kratos from God of War and beating people to a pulp with his bare hands.
Unfortunately, it has its fair share of problems as well. The treatment of its female characters is pathetic: where Hercules’ male companions get armour, Atalanta (Ingrid BolsÃ¸ Berdal) gets a boob tube and a miniskirt, with no personality beyond an utterly one-note, humourless warrior woman archetype. It’s Hercules’ wife Megara (Irina Shayk) who gets it worst, though: the fact that her only role in the plot is to die to motivate Hercules would be more of an issue if it weren’t a vital part of the myth, but it’s still problematic that she gets no (or almost no) dialogue. Where it crosses the line into sleazy and tasteless is the fact that, thanks to a dream sequence, we see her disrobing for a gratuitous ass shot immediately followed by her bloody, mangled corpse. It’s not pleasant.
There are plenty of other problems: minor ones include the bizarre mash-up of Greek and Roman clothing and armour which usually results from insufficient research, as well as numerous references to iron and steel despite this story taking place in the Bronze Age. There are some serious lapses in logic as well: why does the poorly trained and equipped Thracian army leave its fortified city to engage Rhesus in the field? How does the delivery of slightly better weapons and armour transform a bunch of farmers into the Spartans from 300 almost overnight? Why do they adopt the Pacific Rim battle strategy of not deploying the giant murder swords until they’re on the brink of defeat?
Still, no one goes to see this sort of film for the plot, which is just as well: shortly before the climax, Hercules’ right-hand-man declares he’s not in this for the revolution and storms off, with predictable results later on. And in spite of all its flaws, it’s hard to dislike Hercules. It’s not a great film, but it’s largely an entertaining 90 minutes at the cinema.