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Hercules

Theatrical Review


Paramount Pictures; 120 minutes

Director: Brett Ratner


Written by on July 25, 2014 




The trailers for Brett Ratner’s Hercules feature Dwayne Johnson punching a variety of very large mythological animals while screaming into the camera. Students of mythology—or bad 60’s movies—will recognize the boar, hydra and giant lion as all part of the demigod’s mythical Twelve Labors. Their packed inclusion in the promotional materials turns out to be a bit misleading. The Labors do appear in the film but only as outsized versions of Hercules’ own embellished legend.

Ratner’s take on Hercules, based off a work by the late Steve Moore, spins its most fantastical scenes as anecdotes told by the mythic warrior’s would-be PR guy, Ioalus (Reece Ritchie). The gist here is that the Hercules we see for most of the film is merely an experienced, hulking mortal with a cracker-jack team, not the godly legend everyone’s familiar with. Leading a band of mercenaries, and fleeing a bloody family past—Ratner doesn’t overlook the madness and child-murder of the original myth– Johnson’s Herc still ends up being a larger-than-life figure and the leading force of this campy but often entertaining adventure.

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At the plot level, Hercules is a marked improvement over both the long-ago Disney version and the recent Renny Harlin travesty. Playing like a slightly more nuanced fantasy version of The Expendables—where only one team member is a muscled mass of destruction– the script follows the basic elements of Moore’s novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars. Enlisted by the sly king of Thrace (John Hurt) to help him train an army and overthrow a warlord, Hercules and his warriors find themselves in a battle that isn’t as cut-and-dry as they first thought. Although the conceit of the marvelous legends being mere propaganda for a team that utilizes the Hercules brand is enticing, and the dichotomy between the visually-beguiling fables and the visceral reality is effective, the film eventually drops those elements in favor of a more straight-forward sword-and-sandal epic.

Over the years Ratner has developed a bit of a reputation as a hack, usually delivering films that feel like jobs or tasks and that carry little authorial stamp or identity. On a directorial level, he doesn’t bring much to the table of Hercules, but his handling of the big action scenes and his management of actors is largely successful, at least enough to keep the film going before it’s handed off to the real star player: Dwayne Johnson.

Proving he’s come a very long way since The Scorpion King—even if this film shares some of the same numbskull DNA—Johnson steps into Hercules legendary shoes and electrifies every scene he’s in. He’s helped along by the surprising fact that this more grounded version of the man has some actual emotional rounding, and a deep sense of mirthfulness that Johnson instinctively latches on to and exploits for all its worth. In fact, the overall giddy joy of Johnson’s performance is infectious and spreads out to both his co-stars and the giant battles that fill the last third.

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Proving he’s got both the gravitas and the wry charisma necessary to play an authentic version of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, Johnson keeps the movie muscling through not on the power of his own formidable physique, but through the arsenal of his disarming smile and genial charm. John Hurt as the king gets more to do than just the slight cameo we expect, and Herc’s team, including Rufus Sewell as Autolycus, Ian McShane as the fatalistic Amphiarus, and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as Amazonian Atalanta, add real humanity to some of the more clichéd bits of the story. One of the most amusing faces in the cast is Joseph Fiennes as a decidedly flamboyant monarch, underlining the camp intentions of the film at every turn.

Mirth and goofiness are the key here, and Hercules is a modest slice of swashbuckling silliness that benefits from being fully aware of what it is. There’s not much that’s truly memorable, and visually the film lacks the burnished myth-making its central storytellers relish in, but there’s energy and heart there that are often lacking in this particular sub-genre. I had fun with the film while wishing that the filmmaking itself had more fully matched up with the work of Johnson and his co-stars, who engage in this battle for Thrace like there are no more tomorrows and the time of legends is here and now. Maybe the sequel will remember to embrace the outlandishness instead of debunking it.

Hercules is now playing in wide release.


C+







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