Far more entertaining than it has any right to be, this is a big, messy blockbuster retelling of the Greek myth that thankfully has a sharp sense of humour and some surprising twists up its sleeve. The cast is also packed with veteran performers who know how to make the most of some eyebrow-raising innuendo, generating intrigue while keeping the audience laughing with them rather than at them.
The premise takes a revisionist approach, grounding the legend of the demigod Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) in real stories that have been exaggerated by his nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), who travels with him as a kind of toga-era marketing expert. Their team of mercenaries includes wryly fatalistic seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), quick-witted blade-thrower Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), bow-wielding amazon Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) and loyal mute warrior Tydeus (Aksel Hennie). When they're offered a fortune by Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to quell a rebellion, they find themselves in the middle of a massive battle that doesn't go the way they expected. And as events take unforeseen turns, Hercules and his gang have to dig deep to turn the tide in their favour.
Johnson is a natural in the role, so massively pumped up that he looks like he could be popped with a pin. His hulking physique and just enough back-story give the character's reputation some weight, both literally and figuratively, so even if he's not half-god his achievements are still pretty impressive. (There are also plenty of hints that he may turn out to be a god after all.) And the surrounding characters add to this with cleverly written roles that are expertly played by British scene-stealers Hurt, McShane, Sewell, Mullan and Fiennes. McShane is so good that he essentially walks off with the whole movie. But relative newcomers Ritchie, Hennie and Berdal more than hold their own.
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The title kind of gives away the ending of this harrowing true story, which is worth a look despite its tendency to exaggerate the heroics. But it's also an unusually well-made military thriller that throws us right into the middle of the chaos with visceral filmmaking. And it's impossible to miss the point that these men rely on each other every moment of every day: they certainly can't survive alone.
The events take place in 2005 Afghanistan, where a Navy Seal team is sent into the mountains to find a feared Taliban leader (Azami). These men are like brothers, with Marcus (Wahlberg) leading Mike, Matt and Danny (Kitsch, Foster and Hirsch), under the command of Erik (Bana) back at the base. As they head out on their mission, everything goes to plan until they run into a group of innocent goatherds. Letting them go will compromise their mission, but it's clearly the right thing to do. And this decision sparks an escalating situation that seems increasingly hopeless.
From the very start, we know these Seals aren't normal soldiers: they undergo especially gruelling training and then bond tightly as colleagues, relying on their ruggedness, tenacity and camaraderie. Which of course allows writer-director Berg to portray them as superheroes. This is a problem, because it reduces the Afghans to faceless, murderous villains, at least until the much more complex final act in which an entire village risks its life to save an injured American soldier. And this strikingly moving sequence is the one we remember much more than the chest-pounding patriotism.
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