‘Hercules’ seeks man behind the myth

hercules
Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

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What makes a hero? What forms a legend? What is it that induces people to believe in someone? Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s new movie “Hercules” attempts to answer these questions in the most ridiculously grandiose and cliche ways humanity can comprehend. And somehow, it’s still an entertaining and digestible expedition to a time of legends.

Director Brett Ratner’s “Hercules” is a different take on the classic story. We all know the myth of the demigod — the son of Zeus and a mortal — who battled through 12 arduous labours to gain freedom, redemption and immortality: a hero on a quest for glory and power. Johnson’s movie, however, is about the man, a living myth, on a quest to find himself.

The film begins when the 12 labours end. Hercules has earned the privilege of liberty through serving King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes) and is now free of Hera’s indomitable rage — to whom he is nothing but a reminder of Zeus’ infidelity. Haunted by the tragic death of his wife and children, he sells his sword — well, his massive club with what appear to be teeth sticking out of it — to anyone willing to pay the price.

“Hercules” intends to cast light on the sincere story that the legend obscures. “You think you know the truth about him?” asks Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) to open the film. “You know nothing.” And this opening line is a statement of what the movie attempts to do  — show Hercules as a man, as the truth behind the veil of myth and illusion. Reality and myth blend into a confusing illusion, adorned with fantasy and surrounded by deception to make Hercules the son of Zeus. “The more they believe Hercules is the son of Zeus,” says Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), Hercules’ most trusted friend, “the less likely they are to fight”.

This Hercules is a more human one than audiences have seen in other screen adaptations of the myth. Everything surrounding his traditional tale appears to be a lie or delusional story — sometimes both. He bleeds like a human and has a human’s character. “Heroes fight for glory,” Hercules states. “Mercenaries fight for gold.” And Hercules is a mercenary. His tale is only that of legend because it is well told by his nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), a cunning and charming bard. He owes his fame to storytelling and the willingness of others to look for — and believe in — heroes.

Johnson serves as a rock to support the film. This is a man who, due to his physical form, looks like he could be the real Hercules. The movie depends on him and sets all its weight on the pillar of his charisma. Luckily, he delivers a performance in which his personality overpowers and intertwines with his acting, to the point where the general lack of sense of the movie is forgivable. Johnson, a Hayward native, is the definition of a mainstream safe bet.

The different approach to the reality in myths the movie establishes is respectful to the audience to an agreeable extent, without overcomplicating the storyline. The people behind the production of this film are aware of what they’re doing. They are regurgitating the most classic and universal cliches of heroes. But it’s still an absorbing and immersive experience. “Is he really the son of Zeus?” Amphiaraus asks the audience, breaking the fourth wall, as facts lose their power to faith. The truth about Hercules is that it doesn’t matter — as long as we believe he is.

Contact David Socol at [email protected].