Back in the day, you might've been able to make a heroic name for yourself with just some muscle, a little charisma and maybe a magic weapon or two. Perseus, Theseus and all those other Greek heroes whose names ended in "eus" did just fine for themselves, after all. Back then, get yourself a flying horse or defeat a Minotaur and, Boom! Bards would fall all over themselves to sing your praises.
But times have changed. Ancient Greece is no longer the wide-open Peloponnesus it once was. No, it's all hoity-toity and pre-classical now. There are cities and kings and wars and theatrical performances to attend to. The five-and-dime stores are probably full of winged sandals. The average Cretan or Athenian isn't going to be bowled over by just any ol' dude supposedly fathered by Zeus. No, these days, you gotta have a brand.
Just ask Hercules.
Oh, the guy's not all just chrome and polish, mind you. He can bench-press a chariot, curl a good-sized goat. He's got more muscles than most SEC teams. Need a giant boar killed? Call Hercules. Some dirty stables need cleaning? Yeah, the guy can do that, too. Maybe there are those stubborn rumors that he killed his wife and kids in a drunken rage. But give Herc a break: That's ancient gossip. Like, literally.
Still, a good work ethic and biceps the size of Mini Coopers only get you so far. If you want to be a legend, the second thing you need is a team.
Hercules has just such a team. Autolycus is his chief financial officer and snide business advisor. Wiley old Amphiaraus, what with his strange herbs and mystical portents, serves as vice president of strategy and trends. Good-looking young nephew Iolaus? Chief public relations officer, of course—in charge of (ahem) embellishing the hero's many exploits. Former Amazon huntress Atalanta serves nicely as a little extra muscle. And Tydeus, Hercules' über-loyal and mute companion, is the quietest yes-man around.
For ages, it seems, Hercules and his mercenary cohorts have sailed the Aegean Sea, killing enemies and collecting coin. Now, Autolycus says, they need just one more big payday to retire in style. Sort of like The Italian Job ... only with more mythological flare.
And just like that, a pretty princess saunters through the door and tells Hercules she's in need of a big, strapping hero. Seems her father, Lord Cotys, is knee-deep in war, fighting a guy named Rhesus. If Hercules comes to Cotys' aid and knocks Rhesus to pieces, well, Hercules will earn his weight in gold. And with all that muscle, our man Herc weighs quite a bit.
It's a gig too good to pass up. Conquer an army? Save a kingdom? Why, Hercules has performed more daunting labors in his sleep. What could possibly go wrong?
For the last few millennia, the ancient demigod Hercules has served as a mythological template for the word "hero" in much of the Western world. And while we in the 21st century aren't as impressed with someone killing preternaturally large lions as our predecessors were, this version of Hercules still manages to be pretty heroic.
It's more than his strength: After all, jerks can be mighty tough, too. But Hercules is also strangely self-effacing and unambitious. When rabid Athenians chant his name as though he were a god, he reassures the Athenian king, "I only want to be a husband and a father." He clearly loves his wife and kids in the brief times we see them together. He's surprisingly fair to his fallen enemies. And even though he claims to be just a mercenary—way more interested in a paycheck than glory—he's extraordinarily principled in the end, doing his best to right a grievous wrong.
Hercules has been good to his team, too. We learn that he took in Tydeus when he was just a child after finding him at the site of a slaughter. He helped Atalanta find justice (albeit violently) for her murdered family. He practically coddles Iolaus, making sure the kid stays out of danger. And in return, his mates are fiercely loyal to him—putting their own lives on the line for their leader and for one another.
Hercules is reputedly the son of Zeus, the chief god in the ancient Greek pantheon. And while Hercules doesn't quite believe that origin story himself, there are still scads of references to classical pagan deities throughout this story.
In flashback, we see Hercules juxtaposed with a picture of his famous father, grabbing for the lightning bolt that Zeus always holds. We learn that Hera, Zeus' wife, hated Hercules from the very beginning. We see several statues of the goddess, including a gigantic one in Cotys' capital city of Thrace, where she's the metropolis's patron diety.
Amphiaraus claims to receive visions from the gods, though not all are accurate. Similarly, Hercules has recurring visions about the three-headed dog Cerberus, who guards the gates of Hades. Soldiers are told that if they fight bravely, they might end up in either the Grecian heaven of Elysium or the shadier underworld of Hades (where we're told the "fun people" are).
Atalanta appears to pray before battle. Hercules tells a king that his beautiful palace makes him think of Elysium. Soldiers and heroes alike claim to be favored by the gods. Conversations revolve around prophecies. During the closing credits, we hear Jamie N Commons' song "Jungle," which includes these lyrics: "Ain't no god on my streets in the heart of the jungle."
In flashback, Hercules' mother is seen wearing a flimsy, semi-transparent dress through which her breasts are visible: The cloth nearly slips off her shoulder at one point, revealing much of one breast (stopping just shy of full nudity). Hercules' wife lets her own flyaway garments drop to the floor. And while her body is in shadow, audiences see her backside.
Statues of Hera are bare-breasted. Iolaus nearly has his privates skewered by a sharp stick, prompting Hercules to quip, "The girls would finally be safe from your attentions." Atalanta snidely compares Autolycus' tongue with his "manhood." Autolycus shoots back, saying that both have the power to "pleasure" in different ways. The camera repeatedly focuses on Hercules' bare-chested physique.
Ancient Greeks were never known for their pacifistic tendencies, and Hercules and his crew are currently laboring in the middle of a huge war. Hoards of people (mostly soldiers, some civilians) are killed in a variety of ways: arrows, spears, swords, clubs, scythes, chariot wheels, horses, flames, chains, falling statues, snake-bone whips and other bizarre contraptions. Casualties number in the hundreds or even thousands. Corpses thickly cover fields of battle (including dead, bloodstained children), and decaying heads are mounted on pikes. (Someone rubs his finger around one corpse's lips, then licks the blood off his fingers.)
Hercules mows down multiple victims with a single blow of his mighty club, kills a man by punching him in the forehead (with an arrowhead and is not adverse to killing those he feels have wronged him, even when they beg for mercy.
As we're told about Hercules' legend, we see him kill a huge boar, a lion and a multi-headed hydra. We later learn some of these stories were embellished a bit and catch a glimpse of the hydra heads in a bloody bag; it turns out they're human heads wearing lizard-like helmets. Hercules is haunted by Cerberus, and he sees the three-headed dog pull at his dead wife and children. In flashback, we also catch glimpses of that terrible night when Hercules' wife and kids were killed: Their dead and blood-streaked bodies sprawl on the floor, and Hercules' hands are covered in blood.
Hercules gets attacked by wolves. They bite deeply into his shoulder and calf, attaching themselves to him like leeches as he tries to fight them off. One is killed when hurled against a cave wall, another dies when Hercules pulls its mouth apart, and a third is bloodily stabbed in the head with a tooth.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word, three s-words and a smattering of other profanities, including "b--tard" (twice) and "h---" (once).
Drug and Alcohol Content
Someone drinks wine that has apparently been spiked with a drug. People drink in a tavern. One character burns herbs in an attempt to commune with the gods.
Other Negative Elements
People lie, twist facts and embellish the truth.
The story of Hercules, no matter how you slice it, is chock-full of classical pagan elements. Accordingly, almost every take on this legendary Greek hero, from1963's Jason and the Argonauts (featuring all those marvelous Claymation critters from Ray Harryhausen) to Disney's G-rated Hercules, overflows with dialogue and backstory about Mount Olympus' famous gods and goddesses.
As Dwayne Johnson takes the lead, though, there's some question about whether the gods are really involved in characters' lives at all.
It's hard to say, the film suggests.
Hercules can flip horses over his shoulder and mow down five men at a pop with his club—clearly demigod-style exploits. He even has some Sampson-esque moments, pulling himself free of chains and taking down an entire temple thanks to superhuman strength. Still, almost everything these characters actually say suggests that the gods either aren't around or don't care to get involved. Tales of Hercules' labors are mostly myth, we're told. Prophetic visions fail to materialize. Herc himself shies away from claims of semi-divinity, simply saying he never knew his father. Religion, conversation suggests, is an opiate for the masses—effective propaganda useful to inspire soldiers before an epic battle. Belief itself, we're told, is what matters. But it doesn't really matter whether the object of our belief actually exists or not.
"Nobody has any faith anymore," says a Thracian princess. But if Hercules manages to save Thrace, she tells our hero that she'll believe in him ... whatever that means.
It's a very contemporary take on religion and faith, I suppose. For some Christians, such cynicism toward these pagan gods and myths might seem like a point in the movie's favor. For others who'd see these Olympian deities as stand-ins for faith of other kinds (of a certain kind), though, the movie becomes more philosophically problematic.
No matter how you parse these spiritual musings, though, there's no getting around Hercules' sexual allusions and flirtations with nudity. Or its wall-to-wall tapestry of blood and violence. Or its profanities.
Plus, let's be honest: The movie just isn't very good.
Hercules, the Western world's first über-buff superhero, has been the subject of many a movie, and likely will be for many more. The guy's legacy is as wide as his shoulders.
But this particular tale will be—and should be—quickly forgotten.