How will today’s superheroes fare in whatever passes for popular entertainment three millennia from now? Could they survive such assaults on their dignity as endured by the son of Zeus in “The Three Stooges meet Hercules” (1962), or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Hercules in New York” (1970), or Renny Harlin’s “The Legend of Hercules,” released this year? Or most insidiously, a challenge like Brett Ratner’s winking deflation of the myth in this pulpy, self-consciously subversive, above-average summer entertainment?
It opens with a bombastic, voiceover recitation of the hero’s famed labors, rendered in a montage of CGI effects — the Lernaean Hydra, the Erymanthian Boar, the Nemean Lion . . . Just when you think this version will exceed in fatuousness Harlin’s debacle, a voice interrupts: “What a load!” And so it proves to be. It’s all hype from Hercules’s nephew and PR person, the decidedly unheroic Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). The mumbo-jumbo image helps Hercules and his crew of mercenaries — erratic but wisecracking seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), Amazon archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), childhood pal and right-hand man Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), mute beserker and traumatized survivor of the destruction of Thebes, Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) — intimidate their adversaries and get paying jobs.
OK, so you won’t find much of this in your Edith Hamilton, nor even in the dark, grisly, but meticulously researched comic book series by the late Steve Moore. But this is no Golden Age; it’s not even Bronze. The era of gods and heroes is over, and what’s left resembles the Cimmeria of Conan the Barbarian.
Thus, when lovely Princess Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) drops by and pleads with Hercules to help save her father, Lord Cotys (a bristly, blustery John Hurt), and their homeland Thrace from the marauding warlord, Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann; isn’t that a character in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”?), he and his cohorts are interested only in the money. Like a cross between “Seven Samurai” and “The Expendables,” the motley mercenaries train the local yokels and turn them into a fighting force the Spartans in “300” would envy.
After a couple of well-staged and edited (and shot in surprisingly effective IMAX 3-D) battles, it looks like Hercules and crew have finished their job and earned a decent paycheck (much like the distinguished but hammy British actors in the cast). But as with the Hercules legend itself, things are not what they seem.
Less origin story than the deconstruction of one, “Hercules” steals zestily from other films in this and other genres — it has a “Gladiator”-like back story that is disclosed in Hercules’s periodic nightmares and visions, a cute and adoring kid straight out of “Shane,” a moment of fatalistic idealism like that in “The Wild Bunch” — none of which, for the most part, does anyone take seriously. When they do, as when Dwayne Johnson tries to express any emotions other than cynicism or bravado, the film’s own self-
reflexive and ironic pretensions are revealed.
Luckily, McShane’s Amphiaraus usually shows up to restore the right note of self-parody with his quips and faulty prophecies. True, he recites the clichéd and emetic lines, “Is he the son of Zeus? Does it matter? You don’t have to be a demigod to be a hero. You just have to believe.” But then he follows it up with one of the movie’s best punchlines.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.