Thought to be the offspring of a coupling between the God Zeus and a mortal Greek woman, Hercules (Johnson) becomes a folk legend after completing 12 "labours", a series of death defying tasks that convince many Greeks of his immortality. Leading a motley crew of warriors, Hercules is hired by Cotys (Hurt), leader of the kingdom of Thrace, to defeat the forces of a neighboring warlord who plans to invade the kingdom.
The "peplum", or sword and sandal, genre is almost as old as cinema itself, but its peak came in the late 50s, when Italian filmmakers cashed in on the public domain myths of ancient Rome and Greece. The biggest hit of that period was another movie called Hercules, this one starring bodybuilder Steve Reeves in the title role. Scores of imitations followed until Italians turned their attention to the lucrative Spaghetti Westerns of the mid 60s. In the wake of Conan the Barbarian, peplum had a mini revival in the 80s, with countless knockoffs, many again hailing from Italy, hitting VHS stores. The genre seems once again to have re-emerged, as this year we've had 300: Rise of an Empire, Pompeii and now the second of two movies based on the legend of Hercules.
Adapted from a graphic novel, this version sets out to deconstruct the myth of Hercules' immortality. Popular Greek legends are thus shown to be fabrications, with the hydra nothing more supernatural than a snake's head worn by a man, centaurs merely riders on horseback glimpsed through a trick of the light, and the three-headed cerebus simply three wolves on a single chain. Director Brett Ratner and his writers have obviously never seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or they would know to heed that film's sagely advice that when a legend becomes fact, print the legend.
As such, Hercules is a film that finds itself chained to two opposing pillars. It wants to be taken seriously, and so attempts to create a credible world by dispelling the popular mythology of ancient Greek lore, but it also wants to be a light-hearted Dwayne Johnson vehicle. The result is a film that at times resembles A Knight's Tale, while at other times feels like a cartoonish Braveheart knockoff. It's not a complete failure, and the much maligned Ratner handles the action sufficiently well, but ultimately Johnson's unique charm is wasted, and the best efforts of British hams McShane and Hurt fail to elevate it above direct to video level.
By Eric Hillis
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