Hercules: Less Than The Sum Of Some Good Parts

I just saw Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules film.  It’s actually an interesting, if flawed movie, and I wanted to give my analysis, which is rather spoiler-filled.  Frankly, if you’re planning to see it, you don’t want to read further, as I will spoil some of the fun in what is a fun, if flawed, movie.

The major themes of the film are twofold:

  • First that the legend of Hercules is actually due to good PR as much as a man of strength.
  • The role of faith, belief, and image – good and bad.

So the core theme is mostly non-magical.  Hercules is a smart soldier turned mercenary, with a band of talented friends, an excellent sense of tactics, a few clever weapons and gadgets, and a publicity-savvy nephew, Iolaus.  He’s a smart man, a loyal man, and even as a mercenary a decent person for what he does, but also he and his team know the legend is one of the biggest weapons in their arsenal and they’re glad to wield it.

Though they could be fleshed out far more, Hercules team of friends and soldiers is one of the high points of the movie – an archer, a drugged-out mystic, a clever assassin, a troubled soldier who saw too much as a child, and bullshit artist Iolaus.  Combined with a very grounded Dwayne Johnson, they’re both a near-standard fantasy adventure party, a sniping family, and oddly understated.  There’s an almost toned-down-Britcom level to their repartee that’s quite enjoyable.

And, yes, I said toned-down.  This film, despite some crazy action scenes and dreams, is a lot more restrained than I expected.  Which admittedly is a matter of opinion, but still.  I appreciate the movie was far less insane than it could be, it added something by not adding too much.

So Hercules and team get a chance to make their last big score so they can retire by helping a kingdom under assault by an infamous wizard-bandit.  Not actually believing said bandit is magical, they rally a group of farmers and refugees into a semi-functional, then functional army.  Of course this involves a lot of action and death, but rather appealingly the army does not come together magically – it takes time and their first battle is only barely successful.  Fortuantely, the legend of Hercules inspires them, between Hercules’ savvy, Iolaus’ total BS, and his friends different skills victory is soon at hand.

Then we discover things aren’t quite as they seem.

Up to the point of “oh wait” this is a pretty good action film with comedy and fun characters.  Not great, but really quite good, with deconstructions and poking of tropes, plenty of nice moments, and solid if not perfect acting (the cast does vary in skills).  Johnson’s appealingly toned-down and human Hercules makes a great cornerstone to everything, and I really enjoy how he looks more like something out of a painting or a sculpture – he even has his Nemian Lion helmet.

However, when the plot kicks into the second act, it kind of falls apart.  None of the plot ideas are bad, in fact there’s some nice additions, but things move too quick or too slow, elements don’t hold together, things that should have been foreshadowed weren’t, and lots of opportunities are missed.  The film at first pokes all sorts of tropes, then slides into them too much.

The end result is the first part of the movie is better than the sum of its parts – and in the second half it is less.

What’s odd is a little editing, shortening some scenes and others, adding a few minutes of foreshadowing, could have really changed the second act effectively.  It’s the kind of thing a few reshoots and a little script doctoring could have solved.  It would also have brought out some of the actual interesting things not explored – that sometimes a greedy man is more trustworthy to another greedy man, use of some nice narrative elements, and when belief is useful and when it is dangerous.

So I really enjoyed the first half, and I liked the parts of the second half – in a way I enjoyed the film more for what it could have been than what it was.

What is was trying to be and partially was was a modern Sword and Sandal film that did a more realistic twist on the legend while poking some action tropes and exploring some human issues – all while having great actions scenes and plenty of humor.  Instead it meandered after awhile, missing opportunities.

Perhaps on the cutting room floor is a better film.

I wish I enjoyed the film more, because it sets out so many appealing elements that I like that I wanted to.  But I feel vaguely disappointed as well as entertained – there’s more to be had here.


– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.