Brett Ratner's Hercules is a bit of a killjoy. The opening sequence offers a montage of the mighty Greek divine hero (Dwayne Johnson, The Rundown) heroically working his way through the famed twelve labors: doing valiant battle against the Erymanthian Boar, the Lernaean Hydra, the Nemean Lion and so on. Then, the truth is revealed - these are merely stories being told by a young man (Reece Ritchie, The Lovely Bones) eager to convince his audience of Hercules' ferocity. It seems that Hercules is just a mortal man who has chosen to embrace the wild tales people tell about him. You thought you were getting a movie filled with gods and monsters? Nope, just a bunch of regular dudes in sandals. Later in the film, one character bellows an unofficial tagline: “Are you the legend... or are you the truth behind the legend?!”
This “truth behind the legend” business has become a popular storytelling convention in recent years, as films like King Arthur, Robin Hood and The Last Legion strip famous literary tales of their most colorful and/or fantastical elements and offer a just-as-unconvincing “realistic” version of the same thing. The “no, here's the true story” concept driving Hercules isn't a terrible one, but like most of the other films along these lines, it's not bold enough to aim for genuine realism and not playful enough to cleverly exploit the comic potential of the idea.
So, if Hercules isn't palling around with the gods or fulfilling legendary labors, what is he doing? Well, he's the leader of a band of mercenaries who wander across Greece accepting dangerous jobs for large sums of money. The motley group includes the loquacious Autolycus (Rufus Sewell, Dark City), the mute-but-deadly Tydeus (Aksel Hennie, Headhunters), the bow-wielding Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters), the prophet Amphiaraus (Ian McShane, Deadwood) and the aforementioned young storyteller. Hercules may not be quite as mighty as the legends claim, but he's certainly a ferocious warrior – just good enough to cash in on the myths that have grown around him.
Eventually, Hercules is hired for the biggest and most challenging assignment of his life. He and his companions must train the army of Thrace in the hopes of preparing them for a battle against the ruthless warlord Rhesius (Tobias Santelmann, Kon-Tiki). It won't be an easy task, but the reward being offered by King Cotys (John Hurt, The Proposition) is too attractive to pass up.
Hercules is a difficult movie to hate. It's good-natured, it has a few decent battle sequences, it's filled with talented actors and it doesn't overstay its welcome (this is the all-too-rare blockbuster that clocks in at a modest 98 minutes). It's also pretty stupid, and doesn't offer enough entertainment value to keep that stupidity from becoming a distraction. This is a film that devotes a whole scene to explaining that the armor being worn by Hercules and his mercenaries is essentially impenetrable, but then proceeds to place the lone female member of the group in an outfit that leaves her midriff exposed. An arrow to the stomach never hurt anyone, right? The film scoffs at the notion of supernatural beings and three-headed monsters, but the cartoonishly stylized nature of the action scenes significantly undercuts the constant reminders that this is supposed to be the “true” story of Hercules.
Johnson is a charismatic screen presence, but only a small portion of his talents are required for this particular role. He's convincingly muscular and authoritative, but the film's efforts to give Hercules depth (hey, another action hero haunted by the death of his family!) are entirely too flimsy. The supporting cast is overqualified to the point of ridiculousness. It's almost painful to see an actor as good as Peter Mullan (Top of the Lake) wasted in a part that gives him nothing to do other than say things like, “The king wishes to see you, Hercules.” The only supporting player who seems to be having any fun is Ian McShane, who gets a nice running gag involving his character's supposed ability to foresee his own death. McShane is also saddled with the task of delivering much of the film's clumsiest dialogue; a challenge he handles well enough.
Ratner's action scenes feel a bit hindered by the PG-13 rating, but they're generally more entertaining than the dialogue scenes. An unexpected brawl with a group of men covered in green paint is an enjoyably memorable sequence, benefiting from the film's most elegant fight choreography. Other battles have their moments, but the further the film goes, the more reliant it becomes on dodgy CG effects (none of the violent animals featured in the film – real or imaginary – look particularly convincing).
The film's score was written by Spanish composer Fernando Velazquez, who has written marvelously distinctive music for films like The Orphanage, The Impossible and Devil (where his music was the film's only prominent virtue). It's a testament to the generic nature of Hercules that Velazquez's music sounds like something produced by Hans Zimmer's Remote Control factory, riffing on bits and pieces of Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean and King Arthur in an effort to make this blockbuster sound like every other blockbuster. In theory, Hercules serves as counterpoint to Clash/Wrath of the Titans, which fully embraced the most outlandish elements of Greek mythology. In actuality, it joins those movies in reminding us that lazy filmmakers can find a way to make any version of these grand myths feel blandly uninspired.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 2014