“I thought heroes fought for glory.” Ah, but they don’t, as Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) soon learns. The princess stands before Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) in one of those rough-looking establishments frequented by pre-Biblical manly men, her gauzy gown just a bit out of place. Her kingdom of Thrace is under threat by a bunch of marauders, she says, and she’s asking for Hercules’ help. He sets her straight: he’s not a hero but a mercenary, he declares, and “Mercenaries fight for gold.”
So goes the premise of Hercules, a premise at once cute and cynical. Hercules and his crew roam over Greece, preceded by stories of his derring-do so they might be hired to do exactly what Ergenia asks, that is, battle villains, save the downtrodden, and preserve a semblance of order. Their workload is enhanced by Hercules’ reputation as the son of Zeus and tales of the 12 labors (killing the Lernean Hydra, the Nemean lion, the Erymanthian Boar), aided by his mighty-man-mountain look — the chiseled jaw, the tanned-and-oiled musculature, the perfectly arranged scars.
Indeed, when Hercules first shows up in Brett Ratner’s movie, he’s all about the pulpy mythology: shrouded in mist, emphatically silhouetted, shot from below. Impressive as he looks, however, the 40 pirates he’s been contracted to dispatch look at him and laugh: ha ha! Hercules then introduces his buddies, including the balls-of-fury psycho-killer Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) and Amazonian warrior Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), who go on to complete the job with just the right mix of brutal frenzy and aplomb.
It’s after this performance — as Hercules is boasting, “Civilization has become too civilized for us!” — that Ergenia tracks them down. When she promises Hercules’ (considerable) weight in gold as payment, the team agrees to take the job. Back at her kingdom, they endeavor to train an army for her dad, Lord Cotys (John Hurt) and his general, Sitacles (Peter Mullan), in order to fight off the upstart Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). The two armies clash a few times, each battle an escalation of force, discipline, and choreography.
Shot acrobatically and also mostly coherently, these action bits are entertaining in the way you might expect. But they do better as characterization, displays of how the team members look out for one another, clobbering attackers, shooting arrows, careening chariots, all in the name of maintaining the team. A smidgen of downtime has Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) revealing that they’re all orphans, traumatized, rescued, and assembled into a ragtag family by Hercules, their futures not quite foretold by the seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane). While his inaccuracies and uncertainties make for a couple of okay jokes, they also make a thematic point: this is a movie about expectations simultaneously exploited and undone.
Just so, the saga of Hercules is offered up here as the entertainment it is and has always been, a set of legends told and retold to explain or reassure, to provide order amid chaos and offer hope in the face of dread. Hercules the con man gets this, makes money off it, and also, of course, will eventually come to deliver on the promise of order and hope, to be a hero in a movie with his name on it. He’s moral in his own way, haunted by his own traumas (a bloody scene that pops up in fragments, producing nightmarish visions of the three-headed dog Cerberus, the 12th labor he hasn’t yet completed in this rendering of his story), and reluctant to be anything other than the fiction he’s become.
This is a story that should sound familiar. It’s the story that gets told about so many celebrities, how their mythologies overwhelm them, leading to sensational or tragic or otherwise predictable ends. It’s the story that can be told about Johnson, or maybe the Rock, the multiple personae that swirled around his generally nice guy fiction. Whether or not this fiction is true, Johnson continues to play versions of that guy, and it remains difficult not to like him.
Here again, his Hercules is a nice guy, caught between fictions, yearning to escape, working to earn enough gold that he can move to an island and be alone. This too is a fiction, of course, and one that his buddy Amphiaraus exhorts him to abandon when — inevitably — he must make a moral choice. “Are you the legend or the truth behind the legend?” asks the seer (who should probably know), just before Hercules makes clear his self-understanding.
This self-understanding is based in his brilliant body, of course, his capacity to move large objects and withstand all sorts of drastic blows and penetrations. And so, in its self-aware way, Hercules is not so different from the olden-days Steve Reeves sand-and-sandals epics. Sweating and bleeding, swinging maces and destroying architecture, Hercules imposes his will by way of his body, the legend becoming a truth in spite of itself. The movie doesn’t ask you to believe. It only asks you to see what it sees.