Hercules (2014)

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The second Hercules movie this year and with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson up front as the demigod himself and ‘Rush Hour’ director Brett Ratner taking the camera, this sword and sandals tale does exactly what you would expect from it. There are some slightly off kilter moments that question the idea of legends, stories and the like but on the whole there’s no huge surprises in the story. It’s glossy, fiery and big on action.

It’s a very seesawing Greek epic featuring the well known myth of Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) and this film’s plot focuses on him after he has completed the twelve labours. He and a loyal group of fighting followers take on the role of assisting Lord Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt) to stop a deranged warlord violating towns and restore order to the land. Though Hercules and his merry band of helpers may soon be facing a wider threat than once assumed. 

I honestly didn’t hate this movie, or even dislike it. I’m just, well sort of meh about it. It does as it says on the tin (or poster to be more accurate) but the main issue this movie has can be found within the constant attempts at humour, more often than not coming from Rufus Sewell’s Autolycus who drops one liners like some shoddy resemblance of a pre Craig Bond. Some hit as true as Atalanta’s arrows but some make the tense environment fall flat. It’s this blending of humour and suspenseful drama/action that more often than not doesn’t work. It tries to do something different in offering the grand stories of Hercules as maybe less than the legends they’re told to be but this crack at being serious in the heart of a quite camp silly adventure flick never reaches the bulls eye it hopes to get to. 

The line up of characters that stand up and fight for Hercules are cool enough to try and overlook the stiff uninteresting plot. There’s the comic guy as mentioned who dispatches knives like a boss. Autolycus (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) proves a feisty Amazonian warrior with a double bladed bow to top off her ballet like skills at firing arrows. A silent and crazed by night Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) can come at the enemy with two axes and a mad man attitude to kill pretty much everyone. A supposed seer named Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) acts as the push to Hercules to get him to act as the hero he needs to be and then there’s the annoying one who is pretty much just a storyteller and Hercules’ cousin for the entire movie. That title goes to Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), poor fella, not much action for him to get his teeth into. 

Of course a film of this genre utilises on a heck of a load of slow motion which does well to over dramatize the action or sword throwing. At least Ratner knows how to use this unlike Michael Bay who uses slow-mo like a kid who has discovered a new button to play with. The few battle sequences in this film are shot well and the beautiful landscapes of Thracian mountains make for a atmospheric setting for these guys and gal to go at each other. The fighting build up is mostly seen through training led by Hercules to make Cotys’ men better. The following shots of making walls of shields and thrusting with spears etc leads to a Mulan-esque ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’ montage as they increase in skill. The brutal nature of Grecian war is toned down slightly for the 12 certification but there is still a necessary amount of blood left to convince us that Hercules lives in a time of danger and darkness. 

Dwayne Johnson is The Rock no more and his fitness regimes to play this part are well seen by the humongous muscles that flex on the big screen. He was born to play Hercules and even if his lines are wooden, his fighting is not. John Hurt comes out with the most dignity left I would say as his character evolves and a scene in particular nearing the end in a dingy damp dungeon gives Hurt a chance to showcase his better dramatic chops, so too with Joseph Fiennes who grapples with some tense and bubbling dialogue to face off against Hercules with. Bolso Berdal is a Norwegian beauty who convinces with her aptitude for archery and looks like a Nicole Kidman, not a comment on her acting I grant you but I couldn’t help thinking she did. 

This movie does become little more than a political mesh of kings uniting and a revenge story to carry our hero along to the end but there are some good scenes that dazzle with action. It’s a fun film if nothing else and at least you can leave the cinema with the knowledge that there’s worse out there, it truly isn’t awful believe me, it’s watchable, entertaining and pacy that the film shuttles along at breakneck speed.

Try and forgive the way it messes with some aspects of Greek mythology, look past the attempts at dramatic storytelling to shed light on legends not being what they seem and just settle into your seat and enjoy the tongue in cheek madness and fun that can be found in this movie. 

6/10

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Snowpiercer (2013)

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This is just a straight up brilliant movie that feels different and exciting. There are elements that make you think of other films but on the whole this sci-fi bleak future environment we’re presented with has the genius charm of being fresh and interesting. The reliance on a uprising rebellion makes for a dramatic and engaging narrative and the action mixed into this concoction of style and wonder adds that extra wow factor.

Directed by Bong Joon-Ho the plot of the movie begins with a brief point letting us know that an action to try and prevent global warming has in fact left the whole world blanketed in ice and snow. The only population left are surviving in class systems on a train that cycles round a track year after year. The story here finds Curtis (Chris Evans) working with an elder leader, Gilliam (John Hurt), his friend and second in command Edgar (Jamie Bell) and others from the rear of the train to revolt against the better off members from the front of the train.

The dystopian landscape that we see settles the film into that worrying oppressive mood needed to run alongside the story of back vs front. The snowy mountains and ice covered buildings look good but unlike other films that may rely on the CGI of this world, this movie has its heart in the midst of the shuttling train. It likes to focus on the work of the characters moving forward and I love it for focusing on this more than the action and special effects it could have centred on. The train becomes a symbol of order, of twisted beliefs of ecosystems to have weak seen as the feet and the upper classes seen in colourful attire as the head. It’s an obvious way of setting up differences but it works and there’s more grounded harsh realities for Curtis and the others to face as they try and upturn this preordained structure.

A story written by Joon-Ho and based on a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette lets the audience uncover moments of shocking truths with the characters from the tail of the train. A harrowing past concerning Curtis and how he came to know Edgar and see Gilliam as the wise giving leader is hard to hear but makes for meaty backstory and gives Curtis that flaw needed to help him become a more rounded character to empathise with, if he becomes too perfect as this leader taking them to the front then it doesn’t work. This history of his comes at the right moment to understand more of the man. The protein blocks are a jello like grot that hide a secret, passed back metal tubes with secreted messages become a tool of aide but mystery too. It’s a film of layers leading us to get into the story more as the plot unravels.

There’s a true weird haunting touch to the proceedings as the higher up figures speak of order and the almighty Wilford as a god. The scene in the school segment of the train is especially odd. The teacher is brilliantly played as the sweet young friendly type but her message echoed creepily by the children becomes unnerving as they join in chorus of praising Wilfred and saying ice is death. There’s a steady stream of violent action as Curtis and his troop make their way but obviously numbers dwindle and he comes across enemies attempting to take him out. Uses of power become a bloody tool for the higher up figures to get what they want and that builds up the weird vision of this train further.

Action does come in a decent flow and the fight scenes feel even more cool in the changing sections of the train, moving from gardens to aquariums and from saunas to a nightclub this train offers up a massive treat of visuals all still with that hint of uncomfort as we know the powers that be on this train are crazed in treating the back lot like animals. The yellow tinged fight in the sauna room is moody and brilliant and it comes with the needed tension of who is behind doors and who will survive? The action all comes to a concerning end as a slowed down rabble of party goers in steampunk-esque costumes face down the Kronol obsessed Namgoong Minsu and Yona, a father/daughter team imprisoned in metal drawers and addicted to a green blocky drug. The near end is slightly alarming as a moment of welcomed alone time for Curtis could leave him coming around to the ideas of Wilfred and the hum of the engine starts turning into a symbol of his mind working as he contemplates what to do.

Chris Evans can of course play the stocky hero type and he does that here but he plays a more damaged hero and the weakness he shows when divulging his boarding of the tran to Namgoong Minsu is a vulnerable streak that gives his performance a boost of three dimensional edge. John Hurt is the perfect casting choice for the smart leader seeking to do the best though his character later on becomes a more complex one too as we hear more about him. Tilda Swinton who plays Mason a minister and high in command subject of Wilfred is amazing. She gets into any character she plays and the kooky nature of her in this makes her even more grotesque and deranged. It’s a great performance that you can’t help but enjoy. The reveal of Wilfred is another sublime casting decision but I won’t comment on this further just incase you don’t know who plays the engine watcher. It’s a film stuffed full with cast that help elevate the look and feel of the film and they work together masterfully to create a unique tale of revolution.

It’s a fantastical movie that arrives with a damning new ice age and the sci-fi angle of a harsh future and dangerous new world aboard a train makes for a fascinating hybrid of genres. You can definitely tell the plot is based upon a graphic novel which is never a bad thing. Of course the film may not be overly gentle in telling us what is going on and the moving forward revolt is an easy enough story momentum but it makes for a fun, dark sequence of events. I’ve seen so much of this film being reviewed lately and it deserves the wide release it hasn’t got so far. It’s one of the best movies I’ve watched this year, honestly. Even though it comes with a vague ‘Hunger Games’ set up of divided fractions and a ‘Raid’ like upheaval of getting around one place it feels refreshing to see a destroyed Earth movie and humanity tale done so effectively.

A debut majority English speaking film for the South Korean director that delivers on suspense, thrills and spectacle. A film shining in doing something unlike the same gunk that Hollywood churns out.

8.5/10