RECAP: Hercules

Hercules (2014): Brett Ratner

What if a mythological character was rooted in fact that generations of storytellers molded into legend? No, I’m not talking about the Bible, I’m talking about a 2014 movie about Hercules, aka Heracles, son of Zeus and a human woman.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Hercules sews his legend leading an army of Thracians against a mythic force. 

Hero (3/10)

Would you believe the hero of Hercules is Tydeus? No? Ah, well, nice try by me.

It’s Hercules (Dwayne Johnson). Of course. Son of Zeus. Demigod. All that rot. Or, perhaps there’s something more. Hercules imagines the legendary hero as just that–a legendary hero. The movie opens on a narrator telling of the famous 12 labors to a group of assembled men. Turns out that the narrator is Hercules’s nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), who hangs with his uncle for one reason: to tell tales about him.

ROAR

The tactic works. Hercules is believed to be the son of Zeus because people want to believe it, and also because Hercules, the person, is enormous. Dwayne Johnson adds long locks and a beard to his already massive physique. He wears the head of lion in lieu of a helmet in battle, and he carries a toothed club as primary weapon.

All this adds to the image of a man born out of time. Hercules’s get up evokes the hunter-gatherer cave dwellers of old to the civilized Greeks. That’s what they expect from a demigod. Herc’s fighting skills and courage in battle aid their perceptions of him. Hercules never rides a horse, doesn’t carry a shield, and always leads from the front. His strength is unmatched in Greece.

His appearance might seem divine, but his motivation is all human–money. Hercules and his team of legend-boosters fight for gold, for whomever offers.

Iolaus opens the movie narrating to a bunch of pirates harassing Macedonia around the time of Philip II, and Hercules is there to kill them or make them leave. “I get paid either way,” he says. Hercules materializes from the fog and, with the help of his concealed allies, kills all the pirates. “I did it with my bare hands, or so they say,” Herc offers to the pirates before killing them, a clue to his legend-spreading methods.

Hercules’s legends and need for gold draw him to Thrace, where their leader, Lord Cotys (John Hurt), needs help with a dangerous enemy named Rhesus, who is not a monkey, but might be a centaur. Cotys’s army is down to farmers and merchants (and what use are they?) to fight an army of purported centaurs.

Hercules, for his weight in gold, agrees to lead the army against Rhesus. Their first battle, fought too soon, before the troops were trained, goes poorly.

Hercules demands time to properly train the infantry into the best shield wall Greece has seen. It’s all about the shield wall. “The shield wall is your home,” Hercules shouts to the men, “your shelter.” After seeing Hercules, I have begun constructing my own shield wall. I’m that inspired.

Hercules’s great appeal lies in his intelligence, adherence to legend-making, and brute strength. Before the first battle, Hercules faces a charging enemy with a broken arrow point. Hercules punches the man so hard that the arrow point plunges into his skull. Later, he’ll flip a charging horse with a rider. He kicks carts like they are balloons and throws men like rag dolls.

More animal than man, Tydeus speaks one word in the movie and kills a lot of guys with his axes.

Born in Athens and raised an orphan, the real (movie) Hercules joined the army and befriended Autolycus (Rufus Sewell). The strength he always had, but the friends grew with each job he did, adding to his legend.

A lifetime of fighting for money leads to a final fight for his past. Back in the day, when Hercules worked for the king of Athens, his family died in a blood bath one night. Some say Hercules did it, but the warrior doesn’t remember how they died. He never would murder them, though, because he loved his family.

Turns out he learns what happened, and it leads him to fight for nothing, and everything, to avenge his family.

Villain (3/10)

Spoiler alert: Lord Cotys turns out the be the villain. He never touted himself as king of Thrace until after defeating Rhesus. That makes sense, because he is a usurper.

Cotys, back when he was a general in the army, seized control of the nation after he killed his son-in-law, the king. Rhesus is an exiled general making civil war, fighting for the young boy Arius, the true heir to the throne. Arius’s  mother and Cotys’s daughter, Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), gives up the ghost to Hercules later in the film, explaining all this. She knows the truth is dangerous, because Cotys will kill her son.

John Hurt as Lord, later King, Cotys.

And Cotys tries. He has an underling hold a knife to the boy’s throat. He orders archers to shoot at him when he runs to his mother. He’s a Grade A villain in desire, if not execution. “I now crave an empire,” he tells Hercules after the second and successful battle against Rhesus. Uh, you always craved an empire, dude. We’re on to you.

Credit to Cotys: he’s smart. He hires the best warrior in the world to help defeat Rhesus’s larger, better-trained, and better-equipped army, and wins. Cotys offers Hercules the job of leading the army after training it. Almost worked out for you, Cotys.

Action/Effects (5/10)

Ready for a big second act battle scene? Here it comes.

Hercules leads the ragtag Thracian troops to a foggy village, where they find heads on pikes. Some of the bodies they find are old, others not so old, as in fresh, as in not dead. Not dead, these bodies are, because they belong to the enemy and are ambushing Hercules and the Thracians. Uh oh.

Hercules orders the men into a shield wall, a single square to protect Lord Cotys. The enemy, their skin shaded green, surrounds the Thracians in mob formation.

Hercules asks his oracle Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) if they will die in this battle. The seer, as always, knows only that he will not die. Meanwhile, a tall green guy walks up and does a neat twirl with his double scythes, issuing a challenge. Hercules slyly breaks off an arrowhead and clutches it.

Iolaus does his thing, shouting about Hercules’s fists being dipped in hydra blood and all that. The challenger runs at Hercules, and the great warrior punches him so hard in the skull that the arrowhead goes in and knocks the body backward 10 yards. The troops, convinced the gods are on their side, chant “Hercules! Hercules!”

The shield wall

Now comes the real fight. Hercules and his team charge the green men as the green men charge all sides of the shield wall. Each team member is shown in their glory. You got animalistic ax guy swings through bodies. Number Two Autolycus uses short blades for speed. Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) deals death with arrows shot from an indestructible bow. Amphiaraus uses his staff and its retractable blades to swipe left and right through plenty of men, tenderizing them.

The enemy leaps into the shield wall. Many die but some break through. They shout like possessed zombies, and not like humans. “Do not yield!” the Thracian commander shouts.

Atalanta climbs a tower to snipe enemies. She’s got eyes in the back of her head, using them to spot a bad guy and slash his body with her bow, all without turning around. Autolycus helps her with his throwing knives, sending one into a baddy climbing the tower.

Hercules, meanwhile, just bashes guys with his saber-toothed club. “No retreat,” he shouts, as if his troops could retreat–they are surrounded. He also kicks a cart into three men.

The enemy continues leaping into the shield wall, enough to breach it and surround Lord Cotys. Why is he here, again? Troops fall back to protect the lord. Iolaus screams for his uncle to help them.

The Thracian general busts out a whip made of vertebrae. That was baller as hell! Never seen a weapon like that before. He whacks a couple of dudes with that.

Hercules calls for the chariots, and while he’s doing that some goon stabs him. Hercules turns around, annoyed, and throws the goon by his neck into a rock.

Here come the chariots. Hercules drives his four-horsed, rolling into and over bodies. Amphiaraus has a two-horsed chariot plus some tricks. Two hinged blades pop out the sides like sharpened wings, cutting through row after row of villain. Together he and Herc clear the shield wall of enemies and drive them back.

But where is Rhesus in all this?

Sidekicks (4/8)

Hercules has a collection of ragamuffins he’s helped throughout his career. Iolaus is Herc’s nephew and cryer, the man who spins the tales that turn Hercules into a legend. He opens the film narrating several of the labors to a crew of pirates, men who are about to be killed by the legend.

Atalanta, Hercules, Iolaus, Autolycus

Atalanta is an Amazonian shooting arrows and never missing. Amphiaraus is a seer who knows when he will die, so the battles don’t scare him much. He carries a spear with retractable blades. Autolycus is the top sidekick. He tells the truth about Hercules when he’s not slaying people with throwing knives. He also loves gold more than the others. Tydeus is the silent one, the only survivor of an attack on Thebes. He speaks one word in the movie, as he’s dying, and I bet you can’t guess whose name it is that he says. It’s the name on everyone’s lips these days.

These sidekicks are as fearless and effective in battle as Hercules. They lack only their leader’s physical strength, which seems to be what people want in a hero in ancient Greece. Any one of these people might score a higher death count than Hercules, but, again, who cares? They don’t have big muscles.

Henchmen (2/8)

Much could be written about the effete King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes). He appears in two three scenes, all of them great.

First, he shows up in a flashback, accepting the bloody heads of “hydra” (actually men wearing serpent masks), who were troubling Athens.

Next, he appears in the Thracian prison berating a chained Hercules. He orchestrated a wolf attack on Hercules’s family, because the warrior was too dangerous to his rule. Eurystheus describes to Herc how the wolves “despoiled your daughters.” Hercules screams that he wanted nothing, especially not the rule of Athens. Eurystheus shouts, “A man who wants nothing has no price!”

Finally, after Hercules escapes, he pursues Eurystheus through a long hallway. The king begs for his life, makes excuses, whatever it takes to survive. Hercules throws him onto the throne and stabs his guts.

Stunts (5/6)

Two large battles allow the Hercules stunt team to show off its wares.

Each of Hercules’s teammates possesses a unique weapon and skill, and they each get several chances to show them off. Atalanta is the requisite dead-eye archer, never missing a shot. Her bow is tipped with razor edges, which allow her to slice and dice amongst close foes, and its wood is strong enough flip guys over her head and not break. She knocks one guy from a perch to crash throw a straw roof 20 feet below.

Tydeus, the silent one, runs and leaps like a dog, wielding two axes and a growl. He attacks with gusto. In one shot he delivers a double flying kick to the chest of an enemy while axing another in his chest. Then, using a dead body as a launching pad, he leaps into a galloping cavalry soldier.

Retractable blades make good weapons.

Hercules, of course, is very strong, and he shows that off several times. One guy stabs Hercules in battle, so Herc chokes him and throws him into a boulder. He kicks a cart 20 feet forward. His best stunt, by far, comes when Rhesus attacks him.

The enemy charges on his horse toward horseless Hercules, who watches carefully. Rhesus draws his sword and points it at Hercules. Hercules waits for it…then strikes–grabbing the horse’s chest as it’s running and throwing it and rider into the dirt.

Now, of course, this wasn’t a real world stunt, but it looked damn cool. The best stunts in Hercules are from its chariots. Amphiaraus sports a chariot with retractable blades, which he uses to mow down the enemy. At least two scenes show the blades cutting down men left and right, sending blood flying. I was impressed with these scenes. Finally, Atalanta and Tydeus are thrown from a chariot when the latter hits a dead body. Nasty body tossing there.

Climax (3/6)

Hercules has a boss pre-ending. Hercules, after discovering Lord Cotys’s treachery, stays in Thrace to set things right. Pretty soon, however, he finds himself chained to a boulder in the depths of Thrace’s dungeon and facing and old friend, King Eurystheus.

Turns out Eurystheus and Cotys formed an alliance to overthrow all other Greek rulers themselves. They have an army, and all their opponents are dead or in chains, including Hercules. King Eurystheus gives his reasons to betraying Hercules and, we learn, ordering the murder of his family.

Herc, you see, by killing the hydra, had built a name for himself, and Eurystheus knew that he had to destroy that name to protect his seat on the throne. So, one night he drugged Hercules and set loose his three hungry wolves to kill and eat Hercules’s family. That’s a rude dude, and he’ll pay soon.

While this exposition takes place, Cotys orders his executioner to place his daughter, Ergenia, on the chopping block. A terrific scene follows. Amphiaruas, the seer, locked in a cell, asks Hercules: “Are you the truth behind the legend?” Is he something more? “Have faith in yourself.” While he speaks, Ergenia’s convincing screams echo in the chamber, and the executioner lifts his blade.

Amphiaraus ends his speech asking, “Who are you?” Hercules responds, looking to the sky, as if to defy the gods. “I AM HERCULES!” The hero, still chained, tears the stone holding the chains. He runs and leaps toward the executioner, bringing the loose stones onto his body, turning it to a pulp.

The three wolves attack, sinking their teeth into Herc’s blood-filled arm and ankle. That’s where the mosquitoes always get me, so the wolves know what they’re doing. Plus, they have a taste for his family’s blood. Hercules, after terrific struggle, kills the beast by snapping one’s jaws apart and stabbing the other in the head with a lion’s tooth.

Skip ahead a bit. The two conspiring rulers have fled the palace or been murdered by Hercules. Soon, he and his crew, including Rhesus, are outside, where they find the entire army trained and armored by Hercules, eager to kill them.

Cotys threatens to kill the prince and heir, Arius, if Hercules does not give up. He counts to three, but before he gets there the boy escapes and runs across a gap toward his mother and his hero, Hercules. Enter Tydeus, who runs in front of the boy to block the arrows flying at them and charge the archers doing the shooting. This guy takes at least seven shots to the gut, in an amazing act of heroism.

The boy is safe, for the moment. Cotys orders the dreaded, impenetrable shield wall and an advance on the heroes. Their only retreat is up the wide staircase toward the towering statue of Hera, the woman scorned when her husband Zeus fathered the Hercules of myth with a another woman.

This facet of the story surprisingly paid no dividends. Hercules and company knock over the flaming cauldrons to slow the soldiers’ advance. They reach the top and send more fire down, killing several and driving back more. But the fires will die, and they soon after.

Cotys taunts Hercules from below. “Your wife and children deserved to die,” he shouts. Why rile up the greatest warrior in Eurasia? Hercules resorts to his only recourse. He plants his feet and shoves the Hera monument, all 50+ feet of it and solid stone.

Does the statue tumble? You bet, and the head knocks Cotys into an abyss below the city. The camera rolls back to showcase the damage. It’s bad.

And that’s when the army gives up. With their leader dead, they need a new one. Hercules is the best choice, and, one by one, the troops kneel before him.

The movie ends with a pan across the faces of Hercules and his allies, aghast at the scene before them. Amphiaraus narrates. “The world needs a hero it can believe in,” he says. “You just need to believe you’re that hero.”

Jokes (1/4)

There’s bland comedy in Hercules, but its most charismatic actor, Johnson, is underused.

Setting (2/4)

Glorious Greece features heavily in Hercules. You can’t have a pre-modern movie these days without armies marching through the landscape a la The Lord of the Rings, and Hercules fulfills that requirement in spades. You got big forests, tall mountains, and clear rivers for the troops to march over and through.

Hey, here’s Rhesus.

Cotys’s walled city in Thrace is a nice place to live, as long as you are its ruler and not a refugee.

Commentary (2/2)

What makes a hero? That’s the question at the heart of Hercules. I found this aspect the movie’s most interesting. Hercules the character is a strong man doing deeds for hire. His nephew goes around weaving the tales of the famous labors that are turned into myth.

Consider Hercules a vision of the first draft of myth making. Facts get smudged, stretched, and expanded. The credits offer animations of Hercules’s team helping him while concealing themselves from onlookers. The movie is a masterclass in early branding.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Some of the men were rather rude to Atalanta.

Others

  • As Iolaus narrates the endeavors of Hercules, we watch scenes of the deeds. Johnson’s face never appears in them, as they are legends and not the fact of the movie.

Summary (30/68): 44%

Hercules could have been a great movie. I enjoyed the angle of Herc being a man playing a demigod to the people who wanted a hero and the sidekicks who made it a reality.