Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hercules (2014)

Colour me surprised, for the thing I expected least of this particular Hollywood Hercules movie was for it to actually entertain me. On paper, it has everything going for it to push all the wrong buttons for me: directed by Brett Ratner, usually one of the worst directors working in mainstream cinema, and doing that horrible “telling the true story behind the myth thing” that seems meant for an audience that can’t even suspend its disbelief when it comes to a film about mythical figures of ancient Greece. I can’t help but call that an imaginary audience, going by the popularity of superhero movies and all things fantastic in the mainstream right now.

But while watching Hercules, a strange and surprising thing happened: I found myself drawn into the film. While the script really doesn’t accept anything supernatural into its world at all, it’s not at all going for real po-faced realism but the kind of pulp historical adventure I personally find highly enjoyable, populated by one-dimensional yet distinctive and fun to watch characters (on the side of the good guys, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal’s amazon Atalanta and Rufus Sewell’s Autolycus were the obvious stand-outs for me), doing stuff that isn’t exactly realistic in the sense the word would be used by somebody who is really into mimetic literature. Surprisingly enough, the film puts quite a bit of effort into getting certain historical basics right, actually seeming to have more than just a vague idea of military tactics in ancient Greece, even realizing why and wherefore the phalanx was used. Of course, this being a historical adventure in the pulp style, Hercules is also perfectly willing to let the real and appropriate application of fighting styles rest by the wayside when it wants its heroes to do some actual heroics, aiming for the best of both worlds and – for my highly specific tastes – generally hitting the mark.

I also found myself surprised by how little Hercules turned out to be the grim and gritty version of the Greek myths I expected. Sure, there’s the not exactly unexpected redemption arc for Hercules waiting in the wings (with a truly awkward writing hiccup waiting in the final scenes concerning the sudden appearance of Joseph Fiennes’s character that seems to come from a very different, and decidedly inferior film), most everyone in his little family of mercenaries has some sort of trauma in her or his past, and there are a lot of dead bodies on screen, but tonally, this isn’t a film interested in exploring the dark recesses of humanity when it can instead let its characters make a quip and do something adventurous and probably awesome. And, quite in the tradition of sword and sorcery movies without the sorcery, when the film has to decide between psychological realism and cheesy heroics, it’ll choose the cheesy heroics every time. As would I, particularly when this sort of thing can result in a scene of a ridiculously evil, basically cackling, John Hurt condemning his own daughter to death, provoking Hercules into the traditional breaking of chains by really ill-advised mockery (and evilness). Perhaps to appease old peplum fans like me, the film additionally features a moment of extreme statue toppling, as well as not a single boring moment.

Ratner’s direction this time around turns out to be surprisingly decent, too, with the director showing himself always at least to be competent, staging clear and exciting battle scenes, and turning his not-quite real Greece into a perfectly fitting place for his heroes and villains to inhabit.

Because this is an American movie, it also has a lot of nice things to say about the basic value of showmanship, about the lies people telling others turning into the basic truths about themselves if they only tell them with enough belief, and the redemptive value of pretending to be the son of Zeus. Personally, being European and all, I’m more into winning the day by the power of the actual truth, or clever instead of boisterous lies, but then I’m not toppling any statues over here.

Last but not least, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson deserves his own shout-out here too, turning out a Hercules who is likeable, charismatic, and demonstrating an excellent sense of timing as an actor. If anyone wanted to make an actual Robert E. Howard adaptation instead of whatever that last Conan movie with poor Jason Momoa was supposed to be, Johnson would be the guy to cast, if you ask me. Alas, that’s not going to happen.

However, I’ll always have this excellently fun bit of silly nonsense to enjoy.

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