In the words of the big man himself, Dwayne Johnson was born to play Hercules. With apologies to Kellan Lutz, there’s only one man in Hollywood these days that could convince audiences that he bested the Nemean Lion, beheaded the Lernaean Hydra, and beat back the Erymanthian Boar, and that man is The Rock. Unfortunately, Brett Ratner’s take on the Hercules legend chose not to explore the hero’s twelve labors, but to adapt Steve Moore and Admira Wijaya’s graphic novel, “Hercules: The Thracian Wars.” Perhaps if that had been communicated more clearly in the film’s marketing, audiences (and maybe even critics) would have given Hercules more of a chance, since it’s a surprisingly fun action-adventure film that lets Johnson swing away while surrounding him with a strong supporting cast. Now that the film’s available on Blu-ray, you can check it out for yourself.
Hit the jump for our Hercules Blu-ray review.
As a rule, I’m not a fan of Ratner’s directorial work. That being said, another of my rules is to check out all of Johnson’s movies since I’m a huge fan of his. Which rule won out in the viewing of Hercules? Believe it or not, Johnson’s charisma and massive on-screen presence easily manages to outshine Ratner’s often simplistic and occasionally offensive style. In fact, if the final product is any indication, the two seemed to work quite well together to produce an action-packed adventure film steeped in mythology, yet not afraid to put their own spin on the tale. If you’re a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan movies, Johnson’s own work in The Scorpion King, or even the Clive Owen-fronted grounded take on King Arthur, then this version of Hercules should be right up your alley.
In “The Thracian Wars” adaptation, Hercules’ twelve labors are well behind him. Now, he wanders the Grecian countryside taking mercenary jobs from those wealthy enough to afford his services. His heroic deeds are known far and wide, but less well known is his team of fellow mercenaries who assist him in perpetuating this legend. There’s Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) whose tongue is as sharp as his blades, Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) whose prescient visions are equal parts drug-induced and divine, Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) who’s an ax-wielding berserker with a troubling past, Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) who protects Hercules with her expert marksmanship, and Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) who is the nephew of Hercules and helps to bolster his legend through his elaborate storytelling.
Screenwriters Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos’ take on the plot isn’t quite as elaborate, but does come with its own twists and turns. How much of that is pulled directly from the graphic novel, I’m not sure, but it’s enough intrigue to keep viewers interested without overthinking what’s supposed to be a fun action movie. Nods to Hercules’ legendary achievements are played out in flashbacks, flamboyant storytelling, and exposition from supporting characters, but the contemporary version of him is (only slightly) more mortal than demigod. The team helps to keep the legend alive in the hopes that Hercules’ renown will not only dissuade formidable enemies, but will court lucrative employers.
One such employer is Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), the daughter of Thracian noble, Lord Cotys (John Hurt). It seems a rival warmonger by the name of Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann) is wreaking havoc across the countryside, and Cotys needs Hercules’ help to train his conscripted army and stop the slaughter of innocents. For the bulk of the film, this plot plays out much as you think it would, with Hercules team of misfits training a ragtag group of farmers and commoners into a fighting machine. Each and every actor, from the leads to the supporting cast, really buy into the story and turn in more-than-adequate performances. This character work helps to invest the audience members when said heroes inevitably enter into dangerous combat a number of times, always on beautifully designed sets that let the energetic action sequences play out.
There are some plot twists and turns that play out in the last quarter or so of the film which I won’t ruin here, except to say that Hercules himself is given a chance to not only clear his name from his controversial past, but to become a legendary hero in earnest. While fans of the legends may be disappointed to find that the plot is not focused on them, there are plenty of mythological beasts to be found throughout the film. If you’re looking for a fun action-adventure film in the swords-and-sandals sub-genre that shies away from fantasy in favor of a more realistic take, then give Hercules a shot on Blu-ray.
Feature Rating: B
Commentary with Brett Ratner and Beau Flynn (Only on the theatrical version)
Brett Ratner and Dwayne Johnson: An Introduction (~5 minutes)
– Ratner talks about demystifying the legend of Hercules and adapting “The Thracian Wars” while Johnson reveals some serious injuries he suffered while in training for his role, and just how he managed to recover and continue filming.
Hercules and His Mercenaries (~10 minutes)
– An introduction to each of the supporting cast members from the actors themselves, along with Ratner and the film’s stunt coordinators. Plus, a behind-the-scenes look at the film’s makeup and costumes.
Weapons! (~5 mintues)
– Ratner talks weapons with the cast and Supervising Armorer Tim Wildgoose
The Bessi Battle (~10 minutes)
– A behind-the-scenes look at one of the film’s big battles with a behind-the-scenes look of the action-packed sequence. The cast provides commentary along with a number of the veteran crew members.
Effects of Hercules (~12 minutes)
– Visual and Special Effects Supervisors highlight the huge amount of practical effects used in the film, and how digital elements were brought in to enhance sequences. There are tons of practical effects on display here, from the sets themselves (including a 40 by 60 foot water tank for the Hydra sequence), the creatures (the three wolves were actually played by actors in head-to-toe green bodysuits), and more.
Deleted / Extended Scenes (15, including an alternate opening and ending)
– I watched the Extended Cut of the feature for this review, and the extended scenes blended in perfectly with the rest of the film, offering opportunities for supporting cast members to have a bit more time for character development. Also, this alternate ending provides a much more uplifting conclusion to the film if that’s what you’re looking for.