“When I was a kid I remember being visually captivated by the Steve Reeves poster,” says Johnson. “He’s breaking free of this pillar and chains. I didn’t know the mythology back then but I knew the image. That image captivated me. When I was a kid I was always drawn to men who were able to accomplish things, whether they were big things or little things, but men who took care of business physically.”
Dwayne Johnson’s first exposure to legendary strongman Hercules didn’t come from mythology class, but from a legendary bodybuilder-turned-actor who played the divine Greek hero on screen twice.
“When I was a kid I remember being visually captivated by the Steve Reeves poster,” says Johnson.
“He’s breaking free of this pillar and chains. I didn’t know the mythology back then but I knew the image. That image captivated me.
“When I was a kid I was always drawn to men who were able to accomplish things, whether they were big things or little things, but men who took care of business physically.”
Years later as Johnson, then better known as wrestling superstar The Rock, was transitioning from the ring to the screen he thought his bulked up physique would make him the new Steve Reeves.
“When I got to Hollywood I spoke to executives and I brought up Hercules. Didn’t have the clout to make anything happen back then. I have a little bit more these days though and I was able to make it happen.”
The result of Johnson’s lifelong dream is Hercules, an action adventure based on the graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars and co-starring John Hurt, Ian McShane and model-turned-actress Irina Shayk.
“There’s been so many iterations of Hercules over the years I wanted to create something different,” he says.
“Hopefully epic and hopefully redefine him for our generation.”
In the film, Hercules rejects his own mythology in an attempt to stay grounded, something Johnson understands.
“I have enjoyed a good amount of success and I’m very grateful for everything that I have,” the bulky actor says.
“Like Hercules not buying into the myth, not buying into the story but just being aware of it, I’m very grateful for being who I am and making sure that I continue to approach every project and everything that I do as if it is going to be my last.
“There was a time when I was in Canada, playing for the CFL and sleeping on a mattress that I got from the garbage of a sex motel. I’ll never forget it. True story. So, for me, those times are kind of in the forefront of my mind.
“The wolf is always scratching at the door. It’s good to remember that. It’s important.”
The spirit of Steve Reeves lives on. If you aren’t familiar with Mr. Reeves’ oeuvre, he was Hercules before Kevin Sorbo, a legend of beefcake historical drama movies. His movies were all about bulging muscles, swinging swords and damsels in revealing togas.
Which brings me to the spiritual cousin to the Reeves movies, Pompeii, which adds spewing lava, but not much else to the sword and sandal genre. Physically Jason Statham sound-a-like Kit Harrington is up to the heroic Reeves role but is slowed down by the thick layer of molten cheese covers almost every frame of this film.
Set in the shadow of the gurgling volcano Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii Game of Thrones heartthrob Harrington is the muscle bound Milo. His tribe, including his entire family, was wiped out by the vicious Roman Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) dooming him to a lonely life of servitude under the thumb of Roman masters.
Years later as a gladiator in Pompeii’s coliseum he sees a way to exact revenge and save Cassia (Emily Browning), the most beautiful girl in the lush resort town. As warriors Milo and Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) battle Roman soldiers in the coliseum the volcano erupts, causing havoc.
Will Milo get vengeance and save Cassia before a rolling mountain of lava and ash covers the city?
Harrington, Sutherland and Browning are the above-the-title stars here, but the real scene-stealer is Mount Vesuvius. Unfortunately it takes way too long for the volcano to to blow its top and when it does the special effects aren’t quite as spectacular as you might hope from a CGI extravaganza. As you might expect there are flying lava meteorites, bubbling lava and crumbling buildings, but it’s mostly just a bombastic CGI fest.
On top of that is muddy looking 3D that would make Steve Reeves squint. The film overall is dark as though the whole thing was shot through a cloud of volcanic ash.
I did get a kick out of a prison guard loudly waking up the jailed gladiators by shouting, “Wake up scum!” but by the time the credits started to roll I felt that slave trader Graecus was speaking directly to me when he said, “You dragged me from a perfectly good brothel for this?”