Amidst the giant robots and the superheroes who make up the majority of Hollywood’s population these days is a running tradition of films based on Ancient Greece. Producers seem to see the land of Plato and Homer as ideal source material for sword and sorcery epics, as well as gratuitous nudity and gore.
Films such as the 300 franchise and Brad Pitt’s Troy have popularized the trope of blurring the line between history and myth, and it is the latter film which the new production of Hercules, starring Dwayne Johnson, emulates the most. Just as Achilles’ famed immortality is referenced in Troy, but basically denied, along with the existence of the gods, Hercules is here transformed into a mercenary-for-hire whose heroic myth is merely a fabrication by his spin-doctor nephew intended to frighten his enemies.
To the Ancient Greeks, Hercules, or Heracles, as he was known in their language, was an extremely prominent mythical figure. Not only were the stories about the life of the son of Zeus known to all, there were even a number of temples devoted to his worship, and an annual festival, the Heracleia, commemorating his death.
With all of this rich, cultural history surrounding the man, one might fear that his complete persona could not be summed up through the acting abilities of The Rock. However, Heracles as a figure is most commonly seen in art, depicted on pots, murals and the like. As a result, his image in antiquity essentially boils down to a strong man with a club, and it is difficult to think of any actor who could embody this better than Johnson in a loin cloth.
See what I mean?
The Rock’s physicality is a key part of this film’s success, and care is taken to show off his muscles as often as possible. Meanwhile, the rest of the film excels visually, with attentive costume design and magnificent locations, both real and computer-generated. The CGI monsters present in Hercules’ labours are also impressive, though in a slightly bizarre, Scooby-Dooesque twist, they all turn out to be fake – the Hydra, hilariously, turns out to be nine dudes in masks.
As one might expect from a film so keen to marginalize mythology, the story is grounded in an historical context at all times. Set in Thrace in 358 BC, it tells the real-life tale of Cotys I, king of Thrace, played, somewhat surprisingly, by the always brilliant John Hurt. In Cotys’ struggles with warlords in ancient Thrace, he was famously aided by the mercenary Charidemus.
Hercules replaces Charidemus, and his mythical master Eurystheus replaces King Philip I of Macedon, making it clear that someone with some knowledge of ancient history had a lot of fun working on this script. Furthermore, placing the emphasis on a local power struggle rather than some kind of battle to save the world makes the story more relatable than other epics like the recent Clash of the Titans or The Immortals.
The films strengths are its stunning visuals, Dwayne Johnson’s genial and believable portrayal of the son of Zeus, and some genuinely hilarious scenes such as Hercules’ nephew explaining to some soldiers how Hercules removed the indestructible hide of the Erymanthian Boar (he used an indestructible blade, obviously).
Its weaknesses include an irritating tendency to spell out its moral messages until they’re engraved into your eardrums, an astonishingly predictable storyline (will the relentlessly mercenary Rufus Sewell turn up again in the nick of time? Yeah, probably) and a severely juvenile sense of humour. However, these are the stuff that 12As are made of, and by Zeus is it a lot of fun.