Written by: Ryan J. Condal & Evan Spiliotopoulos
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan, John Hurt
If you share a story enough times proclaiming it to be true, you can trick enough people for it to become a legend. Whether truth lies in the story then becomes irrelevant seeing as enough people believe and then live by it. This incredibly intriguing turn on the tale of Hercules makes for quite the story to go through as the supposed son of Zeus continues to make a name for himself. While hampered by a poor final third, the ideas brewing in this feature does more than enough to make up for it.
Traveling with his gang of mercenaries, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) fights for a pretty penny. After completing a recent job, they get approached by the Princess of Thrace, Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) who begs them to help her people in war for a premium price. Hercules and his gang agree but this job will truly push how much they can truly work as soulless mercenaries.
Hercules has, through Greek legend, always been portrayed as the son of Zeus and Hera while still being a demi-god but this feature tries to use a slightly different perspective, which I can certainly appreciate. Instead of doing a straightforward telling of the story, this film takes a more grounded approach where the titular character may still remain the son of Zeus but has a mortal mother. This puts in doubt the status of this man because the film does a great job of never confirming whether or not this version of Hercules is actually a demi-god or just a really strong man. It certainly leans in one direction, but it sows enough doubt to keep the story going, which I genuinely appreciated. Let it be slightly vague.
As a result, this feature captures the importance of storytelling and how it can inspire people as well as manipulate them. This gets captured by Hercules’s nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). He goes around telling the tales of his uncle’s conquests out to others including the origin coming from the gods but most of it comes as smoke and mirrors. For all accounts the manipulation works, which has built out Hercules to be feared by many and sought out by those in desperate need of help. Iolaus’s presence in the film keeps the story alive and as long as the legends remain then so does Hercules in the mind of others. This becomes even more important as it sets the contrast between the legend and reality. Even if Hercules was a demi-god, he still works as a mercenary, which under every context gets viewed in a negative sense. Lacking loyalty, ethics, or any decency typically gets associated with being a mercenary, which does not make Hercules a role model figure as other iterations of the characters have relied on. The storytelling helps wash this image.
The film does come with plenty of issues with the main one narratively coming from the reveals it makes and most of the filmmaking involved. I understand what the film goes for here but it all just feels secondary to the development of Hercules and the team of misfits. It just does not make sense on a narrative level where the story goes, especially with the message it wants to have about tyrants. It becomes far too convenient, which leaves the climax very much lacking almost to a comical degree when trying to dispatch the true villain of the piece. I just sat there thinking of all the better ways the film could have gone with its conflict but what we received felt a bit lackluster. Additionally, it’s fairly hilarious this film markets famous supermodel Irina Shayk as part of the cast to the point where she’s on the DVD cover but has one line of dialogue and one scene where she shows her butt. Something I would overlook if not for the history of the director helming the project. I certainly did not think she would have a big role seeing as she’s not an actor but to utilize someone like that in such a gratuitous manner just rubbed me the wrong way.
The heart and soul of this feature lie with the titular character and his gang of mercenaries. Everything working well with the narrative occurs because of them with all other aspects serving as a distraction. A wonderful rapport gets established fairly quickly between them all with the standouts being Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) and Autolycus (Rufus Sewell). Both adding their own layers to the group in what they hope to accomplish. They all help in bolstering the legend of Hercules through their actions but also in creating a family of fighters worthy of having the strength to be associated with such a legend as proclaimed by Iolaus. They allow other aspects of the film to be forgiven seeing as the narrative allows plenty of time for them to continue to bond and draw the line on being a mercenary.
Very flawed in its execution, but still something with enough nuggets of true entertainment factor to make it an overall enjoyable viewing experience. It does not play out the way it’s advertised and as a result, becomes a far more interesting story to see play out. In the end, this version of Hercules could be a demi-god or not, but ultimately does not matter because the importance lies in the legends and how these mercenaries live up to their action.