But soon we find out that Rattner isn’t after retelling the worn out legend as it is. Every bit mythical in the story is gradually, slyly subverted here. Hercules isn’t one-man-army but they’re actually a team, and he himself admits that he’s nothing without them. They work as mercenaries for gold, and one member of the team is a storyteller whose job is to bloat and exaggerate every story into a legend. Whatever myth remains here is restricted to nightmares and traumatic memories. A three-headed wolf Hercules sees in his nightmares is actually a surreal version of three independent wolves, centaurs seen in silhouettes turn out to be mere men riding on their horses, and a man who has presaged his death based on clues provided by god discovers that his inferences weren’t so right after all. The film even tells us that it doesn’t matter whether our hero is actually god’s son or not – the story instills fear in the enemy and sometimes prevents them from attacking. As preposterous as it sounds, at least the emotional bits actually come together nicely towards the end.
The film moves fast enough, and although there are minor expository bits to keep us up with the narrative, the real highlight are the battle sequences, truly packing a real punch here. Whereas most of the action movies today rely only on scale to inspire awe (tiny little humans occupying tiny sections of the cinematic frame largely dominated by gigantic reptiles/jaegers/aliens etc), the action scenes in HERCULES employs mostly close-to-the-ground medium shots. But these scenes are full of little surprises; and the sheer, steadily rising intensity of the action is accompanied by effective emotional weight. It’s a rare instance where we actually feel the stakes during the bloodshed. The effect is often exhilarating.
What works in favour of this cheap-looking, dumb movie is also what prevents it from being a great one. HERCULES isn’t a full-on deconstruction of the epic. But for a film that strips the diegesis of its narrative of its enigma, what leaves you unsatisfied is how conventional the handling is in some aspects; like the villain still being gratingly one-note, mouthing lines that belong only to a cheap, dumb blockbuster. The movie could have clearly done with some self-reflexivity or some nuance there (yes, it’s that sort of a middle-movie that makes both those options seem plausible). I would have also liked to have been provided more information about Hercules’ past which forms the major emotional hinge to the narrative but which makes its appearance in the film only in form of fleeting flashbacks.
In spite of being a subversive film, it’s one that takes itself very seriously; but even then, surprisingly the outcome is more compelling than jarring. What Rattner does with all the myth-deconstruction in the movie is that he doesn’t demolish the legend; he carves a new one with more realistic concerns. It’s still a story of a hero figure accomplishing Herculean tasks, but with fresh obstacles that serve towards breaking a myth. Like THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, it traces its protagonist’s journey from being a symbol to becoming a person. Although Rattner doesn’t exactly tie up all the threads and one comes out with a feeling of having seen an incoherent mishmash of great ideas; the movie is almost consistently engaging. Oh, and particularly watch out for the first battle sequence. It's quite sensational.