For anyone who has followed his career over the years it’s pretty obvious why Dwayne Johnson took on Hercules as a pet project: the on-again, off-again WWE star and the mythological demigod have much the same progressive arc. As Johnson rose to prominence as a face (good guy) character, giving The Rock the signature moniker ‘The People’s Champ’, Hercules was perhaps the world’s first champion of the people winning hearts and minds with tales of his twelve labours. Much as The Rock was driven from the WWE by fans after turning heel (bad guy), so too is Hercules driven from his home after allegedly murdering his wife and children, in this feature. And finally, much as Dwayne Johnson found a new career in movies (much to the bane of certain subsections of the wrestling community) Hercules leaves glory behind, selling his might to the highest bidder rather than the most worthy or those in need. And that’s where this story begins…
After countless scores with a merry band of brothers, the mercenary Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is looking for one final job, which arrives in the guise of King Cotys (John Hurt) who is on the cusp of losing the kingdom of Thrace to rebellion. As Hercules agrees to train an army for Cotys, his honour is brought into question as he finds himself trying to reconcile himself from the legend he represents.
Another parallel between Johnson’s career and his eponymous role in Hercules is the importance of image. The charm that Johnson exudes when playing face or heel roles and his natural charisma as a well known celebrity have been instrumental to his prolonged success. Similarly, the ‘Son of Zeus’ leans on his image, employing a minor militia to aid in the presentation that he is an unstoppable force (including an honest-to-god snake oil salesman whose only perceivable task is to espouse the demigod’s origins and indulge in tales of his might). Despite such braggadocio, this is a relatively grounded Hercules tale that eschews standard Greek mythology and lore in lieu of a more ambiguous perspective. Hercules is truly a tremendous specimen but he can suffer injuries and wounds. He performs feats with tremendous aptitude and strength but then his muscles are really, really big. Is he genuinely a demigod or is he just perpetuating Chinese Whispers for the sake of infamy? Who’s to say? Who’s to say that Dwayne Johnson is as sweet and charming as he appears in every interview, either?
Speaking of Johnson, it feels unfair to criticise his portrayal as Hercules given the amount of physical preparation that clearly went into the role. The former-kind-of-current Rock doesn’t even bring a bad performance to the table but the sad truth is that Hercules is so jam packed with additional irrelevant characters that even the star of the movie doesn’t get much of a chance to shine. When the action does kick in Johnson commands the screen with the action-hero presence we’ve known him to be capable of since Welcome to the Jungle (or The Rundown to those in the USA), but in spite of his action chops, even when the action develops into caricature it’s so sparse that it’s difficult not to be left wishing for more.
Hercules feels more like a commentary on Johnson’s career than a spectacle designed for audiences and even in that regard it fails to showcase the former People’s Champ in an ideal fashion. It’s been said that Hercules persisted with his original twelve labours until he succeeded, but the final result is a stumble with this one.
Overstuffed with ancillary roles, under-representative of Hercules’s might and lacking in enough action to make up for its faults, let’s just hope that this creature doesn’t grow any more heads in the future.