Get out your bone whips and lion hats, we're reviewing Hercules!
The legendary Hercules(Dwayne Johnson) and his posse of warriors are hired by the king of Grace, Lord Coyts(John Hurt) to save their city from the tyrant warlord Rhesus(Tobias Stantlemann), who's said to be a sorcerer leading an army of Centaurs. Can Hercules live up to the legends that precede him?
This movie is GREAT. It's better than I ever could have expected, though I wasn't expecting much. And if you don't want to be spoiled at all, stop reading and just go watch the movie. I'm going to have to slightly spoil the movie to talk about it. Granted, this comes in at like five minutes after the opening credits and knowing what's happening probably won't spoil the fun, but if you want to be COMPLETELY surprised by the movie, here's your SPOILER WARNING.
So the main thrust of the movie is that in this version, Hercules isn't actually the fabled demigod son of Zeus with super strength and unbreakable skin who defeated 12 monsters, he's really just a super beefy mercenary with a well-put together team. He and his team just made those stories up to put the fear of the gods in his enemies and make the killing that much easier. And that is...pretty fucking amazing as a story premise. It's not just, "this is the REAL story of Hercules that everyone got wrong", this is a group of cunning warriors living in a time when people don't know what's real and what's myth and using that to their advantage. That seven-headed Hydra that Hercules slew himself? Well, it was actually a group of guys in serpent helmets that he and his team took out. Herc and his crew are somewhere between a superhero team and a traveling magician's act. It's fantastic.
And what's better is that even Hercules and his team also don't know fact from fiction. They know all the stuff they've done is bogus, but considering the world they live in, they COULD be fighting monsters or magicians or three-headed demon dogs from hell, how can they be sure? Are they really fighting a magician who's mastered the dark arts and commands an army of centaurs, or are they just fighting a guy who's got great military training and is using all the same tricks he's using? And considering how we look back at greek mythology and movies like this, the audience is half expecting the real Zeus to show up around a corner any minute. Their seer, Amphiaraus(played hilariously by Ian McShane), is usually strung out of his mind, but even he gets some oddly specific prophecies right. Who's to say he and Herc aren't the real deal? It's a fun premise and I'd love to see a new TV series with Hercules and his motley crew taking on "legendary" threats that happen to be pretty normal problems.
Even when you get past the great premise, you still have a super fun-to-watch action movie. There's a ton of action, and it's all really great greek fighting stuff. Swords and shields and arrows flyin' into dudes type-stuff. Plus, there's a lot of newish stylish technology like you'd see in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, like Ergenia's blade bow, or Amphiaraus' blade staff with spring-loaded cross blades, or their tricked-out horse chariot(with blades), or one guy using a bone whip! What the what?? And there's Autolycus throwing daggers everywhere, and Hercules himself straight-up smashin' dudes with his giant club, tons of fun stuff. It is SO much action-packed fun. And what's super fun is seeing all the cool ways they use their fun tools to make Hercules look like the real legend. Did Herc really take out 7 pirates with one blow, or did those dudes get daggered in the throat before anyone could notice?
Now I want to talk about the representation of women. It's...surprisingly not as bad as it could have been! But then it also could have been better. I don't think it's terrible(certainly not as bad as the last 300 movie or the awful Conan remake), and there's a lot of good spots, but there's also spots where I wish it could have gone farther. Take for instance Ergenia, who's a pretty badass Amazon warrior on Herc's team and never needs saving. That's cool, BUT there's a scene where Cotys doesn't think a "woman is right for war" and Ergenia has to do that thing where she proves she's a badass anyway. Was that necessary? Can't we all just agree that women are badass too? Plus, she's the only woman on a team of six. That's FIVE other dudes. Sure all the other guys are great actors and fun in their roles, but couldn't you have made ONE more female instead of making Ergenia the Token female? Atlanta, the queen, gets taken as a damsel in distress, but early on Herc's nephew Iolaus gets taken hostage and puts in a DID situation, so at least it's equal. There's almost a boob pop out of Herc's mom's see-through dress, but all the women wear shirts, and the most naked one in the entire movie is DEFINITELY Dwayne The Beefcake Johnson, so plenty of female eye candy. So not terrible.
Then there's Herc's story of him getting enraged and killing his wife and kids. Which, is a big "Women in refrigerators" trope, but I'm liable to give it a pass since that's how the classic greek story goes. BUT. The whole idea of the movie is that Hercules isn't the legend everyone says he is. It's weird that they take out all the monster slaying and feats of human strength and leave in the women and children getting killed so he has motivations, right? They could have made it so that killing them off was just another embellishment on their part to give Herc some driving force, instead of, y'know, ACTUALLY killing them off to give Herc some driving force. That would have been a cool subversion of the myth! Maybe he's just a bachelor, or his wife and kid left them, or they died in some really mundane way but they make it all dramatic, and then one day Herc goes, "guys do we really need that? It seems kinda gory for no reason" But that's just me writing fan fiction. The way they handle it is still in that vain of "not quite the myth" but it's also still used to give him motivations to kill the main bad guy, which, did he really need one more reason to kill the bad guy? Really?
That's one of those things that came to me after the movie, though. Nothing in there was so problematic that it hampered my enjoyment. Overall it's a really fun movie! There's lots of action, it's funny, and it's a really cool idea. Dwayne Johnson is having a ton of fun in his role. He's perfect! I don't know what movie started this wave of classic tales that "aren't what you've been told" and I know the bubble will burst sometime, but right now I'm enjoying it. Also, the 3D is pretty good in parts but doesn't work throughout, so maybe see it in 3D, maybe not. But yeah, Hercules. Not terrible, lots of fun.
THE GOOD: Good cast, great premise, great action, lots of fun, funny, great graphics, 3D is ok.
THE BAD: Could have gone farther subverting the myth, could have worked the Women in Refrigerators part better, maybe more diversity, woman proving she's badass scene.
THE VERDICT: $$$$ It's a super fun movie that I could easily see two or three more times. If they had subverted the myth just a bit more to not do the women in refrigerators scene, and maybe take out the woman proving herself bit, and hey maybe adding some people of color, I would have given it a perfect score. But it is a great movie and not as terrible as it could have been. Which sounds like a back-handed compliment but I'm being sincere here! I really loved it.
MOVIES LIKE IT: Gladiator, Hansel and Gretel: Which Hunters, Maleficent, 300
ONE-SCENE METAPHOR: Amphiaraus all but tells Hercules that he's the old character that gives him advice and then dies dramatically at the end. He even goes so far as to predict his very specific death requirements. And then he's surprised when a reign of fiery arrows rains down and he's still standing. It's a great comedic bit that plays on those classic story tropes.