Dwayne Johnson’s big, veiny biceps star in Hercules, the newest take on the old Greek myth centered on the son of Zeus. C’mon, we all know Hercules, at the very least Disney’s decent renaissance-era animated version. The guy’s got super strength and fights mythical creatures. That’s all you need to know, right?
No, actually. This is a ‘reimagining’ of the classic character, the new buzzword that has been responsible for many a cliche blockbuster (Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Mirror Mirror, etc.) This time Hercules isn’t the son of Zeus; he’s just a really, really buff dude. If you’ve seen the trailers, then you might be confused: wasn’t it packed full of supernatural imagery and monsters. Turns out all of that cool fantasy stuff in the previews are from the first few minutes of the film, in which we’re told, via epic montage, the familiar tale of Hercules’ birth and his eventual trials against creatures of myth.
But then we cut to reality, where we realize that these stories about Hercules’ invincibility and strength have all been made up by his sissy nephew in order to strike fear into their enemies. Instead of the Clash of the Titans-style man vs. CGI fantasy fights you were made to expect, the movie proceeds as a 300-esque man vs. man, army vs. army epic. The fact that it’s not actually a fantasy film or that Hercules isn’t actually a half-god isn’t really a spoiler on my end. It’s just clearing up blatant false advertising.
The real story begins when Hercules is recruited by Lord Cotys (who is clearly a lord because he has a white beard) to help train his army to fight a generically evil invader force lead by Rhesus. Eventually Hercules leads an army with the goal of tearing Rhesus to pieces. By Hercules’ side through the whole ordeal is his ragtag band of friends, including his storyteller/PR nephew, an insane feral dude, a guy who thinks he knows when he’ll die, and an indistinct female warrior who of course has to have a “girls can fight too!” moment because we’re totally not past that point, right?!
Even if you’re disappointed by the lack of fantasy, you still can’t claim it’s a cheap-looking movie. Beautiful Grecian vistas, some sun-drenched and some covered in thick moody fog, serve as backdrops. Costumes and interiors are as opulent as you’d expect. There’s a real sense of color to the world that’s missing from a lot of similar gritty reimaginings like the awful Snow White and the Huntsman. The CGI employed here is also fairly convincing up until the big finale, when everything becomes inexplicably video-gamey.Plot-wise, the film basically boils down to multiple battles linked by scenes meant to flesh out the different characters and move the story forward. The battles are easily the best thing Hercules has to offer. The film is PG-13, but it seems to push the boundaries of what a PG-13 movie can get away with in regards to violence. You won’t see streams of blood a la 300, but the film nevertheless finds way of transmitting the brutality of the combat. Every time Hercules lands a hit, there’s a satisfyingly visceral sense of impact, which is more than can be said for many summer blockbusters. Even though these scenes are undeniably mindless, you can always tell what’s going on. Director Brett Ratner faces constant criticism about his skin-deep filmmaking, but here he proves that he at least knows how to stage comprehensible action. And Johnson does a good job as Hercules, imbuing the character with his real-life humility and charisma. He certainly looks the part, undergoing an insane workout routine to give him the believable appearance of a demi-god. Beyond this, though, the movie offers very little in the way of complex plot dynamics or character development. Hercules is haunted by the death of his family, but it’s a cheap device that never earned an inch of sympathy from me. Each member of his crew is given the barest of arcs, usually one or two lines of dialogue which are paid off at the end of the film. Scenes between Hercules and some side characters, including a royal widower and her son, fall flat. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes made us care about an orangutan named Maurice who never speaks, yet none of the human beings in this film elicit similar reactions. The only interesting aspect the script attempts is the exploration of the collision between myth and reality. This actually gives a sense of purpose to the film’s false advertising, since Hercules is himself advertised falsely in the world of the film as being beyond a mere mortal. Unfortunately, this eventually devolves into the stupid message of ‘you don’t have to be a god to be a hero’, though the fails to mention that you still have to have muscles as big as The Rock’s. Hercules’ knuckle-headed action is at times fun and flashy enough to forgive its cliche-ridden, mostly brain-dead story. It’s got the requisite action and humor to make it passable as breezy entertainment, but its inability to make me care about a single damn thing left me bored even during the good-looking action sequences. At times the movie is so inconsequential that it feels custom-made for viewing on low volume on big screen TVs at Best Buy. But hey, I guess that’s still something. Score: 2 out of 5 – Sam