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If you can see only one Hercules movie, see this one

By Christopher K. Conner

“Hercules,” the second Hercules movie of the year, is based on the graphic novel “Hercules: the Tracian Wars” by Steve Moore and stars Dwayne Johnson in the title role.

The mythical story of Hercules is one of atonement.

This retelling of the tale is more about redemption and revenge. Instead of being the solo hero of myth, Hercules leads a band of mercenaries, hiring themselves out to kings and nobles to take on pirates and warlords.

The film opens with a narrator telling tales of Hercules’ trials. When the narrator is interrupted we see that he is suspended over a spike about to be lowered to his death. He is Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), the mercenary band’s storyteller and nephew of Hercules. Hercules arrives on the scene and introduces his other companions, each deadly in their own way.

After rescuing Iolaus and defeating the pirates, Hercules and his band are counting their gold and enjoying themselves when Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) arrives. The daughter of Lord Cotys is seeking to hire Hercules on behalf of her father. The kingdom of Thrace is in a state of civil war. The warlord Rhesus leads an army of centaurs against helpless villages and Cotys’ army is too weak to catch and defeat the warlord.

Hercules seems uninterested until he is offered his weight in gold as payment for his services. On arriving at Thrace, Hercules and his band encounter the faces of refugees, an army of farmers and merchants and finally the aging Lord Cotys (John Hurt).

Explaining the situation, Hercules agrees to train the army, but Cotys uses information from his scout to determine that he must head to meet Rhesus immediately to try and save a town near where Rhesus’ army is camped.

Against Hercules’ advice, the Thracian army marches out. When they arrive at the village they find that they are too late.

Too late, they realize the village is a trap. Wildly tattooed men encircle the Thracians. By Hercules’ leadership and the fighting skill of his companions, the Thracians win, but lose half of their forces in the battle.

Now understanding that Hercules was right, Cotys agrees to allow Hercules to train the army and provide new equipment.

Following Hercules’ lead Thrace is able to defeat Rhesus and become a unified city-state. At the celebration, Lord Cotys dons the crown of the king of Thrace and through rumor and observation Hercules begins to understand that he has helped install a tyrant.

When Hercules and his band is captured as they attempt to undo their mistake, Hercules is forced to confront his final trial: the three-headed dog Cerberus and the crime that resulted in the death of Hercules’ wife and children.

Much like “The Legend of Hercules” from January of 2014, “Hercules” deviates from the stories of Greek and Roman myth.

With “Hercules,” however, these deviations are systematical and part of a skeptical and almost humanist treatment of the story of Hercules. The level of skepticism and outright disbelief exhibited by even the pirates and foot soldiers is unexpected. They don’t just believe the stories behind Hercules’ legend, or even the actions of the gods.

It takes more than Iolaus’ tales to convince people of Hercules’ greatness. Only empirical observation seems to satisfy them. Gradually we see that the tales truly are larger than the man until he is forced to live up to the stories and become more than the figurehead of a myth.

“Hercules” presents a number of intriguing characters and a story that is twisting and interesting, even if it deviates dramatically from what students of the myths expect. Acting wise, Johnson doesn’t venture far from portraying himself. Ian McShane is fun as the drug-using battle sage Amphiaraus, and the other members of Hercules’ band all have their own interesting characteristics.

John Hurt does a good job moving from a pathetic, seemingly doddering Lord Cotys to the viletongued tyrant king. He manages to make the transformation believable, though if I closed my eyes I still heard the voice of Aragorn from Ralph Bakshi’s animated “Lord of the Rings.”

Fans of Dwayne Johnson in an action role will not be disappointed by “Hercules.” Johnson doesn’t drift far from his normal action character acting. Even fans of Herculean myth might find the perspective and skeptical treatment of the myths an interesting exercise. That said, some audiences might take the overall theme of hero creation and the origin of myth as a challenge that could border on insult.

If limited to one Hercules movie per year, this would be the one to see.

The sort of person tempted to see any film with swords should see both for comparison’s sake.

I’ll wager most will enjoy “Hercules” much more than “The Legend of Hercules.”

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