Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Movie Review: Hercules

Or: "What A Man, What A Man, What A Man, What A Mighty Good Man"

Before getting to the review, I have to clarify something:

This is Paul Telfer, who plays Hercules:

And he spends most of the movie looking like this:

So it's somewhat conceivable that I might be the tiniest bit biased in this review. ;)

But in all seriousness, when dealing with mythology, you're inevitably going to find that no two interpretations of the same story will match. Measure this up with the Kevin Sorbo television series, Eric Shanower's "Age of Bronze" depiction of Hercules, or, God forbid, the Disney movie, and you come away with four very, very different stories, with four different protagonists all named Hercules.

So how does this one stack up? Pretty well, actually. Telfer plays a Hercules that falls somewhere between Shanower's barbarous thug and Sorbo's saintly muscle-man: this Hercules is a man of both rage and compassion, someone shaped as much by the tragedies of his youth as by the plots against him in the present. He respects the gods, but refuses to follow their edicts blindly. Granted, Telfer's acting range is a bit limited - there are moments in the movie where he doesn't quite manage to pull off the emotion necessary for certain scenes. But my God, does he look the part.

The twist in this film, and something it shares with "Age of Bronze", is the questionable existence of the gods. At no point in "Hercules" is there any direct evidence that Zeus, Hera or any other deity is actually out there, actively involved in how the story unfolds. There's Deianeira, who is supposedly a wood nymph, but she doesn't display any visible supernatural powers at all. Which means that, when Amphitrion (played by Timothy Dalton) tells Hercules he's the son of Zeus, we don't actually know if that's true or not. He's strong, but as one of the characters says, it could just be because he's been bench-pressing horses since he was a teenager. The film conveniently straddles both lines of probability - that the gods exist and their influence is self-evident (ie: Hercules' aborted suicide attempt), or this is a story of a very powerful man who is just that, a man. It's a layer of ambiguity that adds a lot to the film (because, really, if the gods don't exist, then Hercules spends most of his life being tortured for absolutely nothing - and wouldn't that be the perfect Greek tragedy?).

Another interesting addition is the plot being predicated upon a war between Zeus and Hera - a war that, on the mortal plane, breaks down among gender lines, with the female characters aligned with Hera (high priestess Alcmene, Hercules' mother, played to perfection by Elizabeth Perkins; Megaera, Hercules' nurse, first love and most bitter enemy; the Harpies, etc.) while the alpha male characters like Alcmene's husband Amphitrion worship Zeus. Two characters blur this gender distinction. The first is Hercules' twin brother Iphicles, who is schooled by Alcmene in the ways of Hera. He promptly matures into an effeminate man who seduces his cousin, King Eurystheus, solely on Mommy's say-so. The other character is the hermaphrodite prophet Tiresias, whose metaphorical castration by Alcmene (she blinds him) ends up placing him in the role of the Oracle of Delphi, the most powerful seer in Greece. Fortunately, the film eschews such cliches as barely-clad lesbian Amazons in favor of a more subtle approach to the issue of sex and power in this recreation of ancient times. After all, it's certainly debatable who is the most powerful character in this film: it could be Hercules, who kills all these horrific monsters through sheer strength and determination, or it could be Alcmene and Megaera, who manipulate Hercules so easily, so effortlessly, that he never even suspects them at all until it's far too late.

Of course, there are a few missteps here and there. First and foremost, Sean Astin. The role of Linus is one that he absolutely should not have taken, because it's nothing more than a reprisal of Sam Gamgee from "Lord of the Rings". Yet again, Astin plays the (mostly) useless, bumbling sidekick who tags along out of devotion to his friend, even into the volcanic wastes of Hades. Of course, it's only a two-hour movie, and there's a whole cast of relevant characters to deal with, so Linus doesn't get much screen time anyway. He's just there to ramble about poetry and follow Hercules up a mountain while the majestic vista dwarfs them in the background. You could almost here the flute melody of the Shire.

Secondly, it does feel like the film was slightly abbreviated in terms of Hercules' labors. In this version, he only has to complete five - all of which involve some mythical creature or another that has to be killed. It would have been nice to see some more trials, albeit with the caveat of a bit more variety. If the idea of the labors is to prove Hercules' heroism, there should be more to it than going out and killing things. Not that the monsters weren't adequate, but it did get a little tedious at some point.

Still, all in all it's an enjoyable film in its own right. Telfer is gorgeous, the political intrigues are just complex enough to hold interest without getting overly byzantine, and best of all, you don't have to endure any Sorboan moral proselytizing at the end.