Scott F. Evans
Brett Ratner’s Hercules is a hard film to review. It’s not bad enough to hate or even strongly dislike. There’s some good stuff on display, and it seems like all the talent involved are trying their best, but unable to make the material work. Hercules just lays there, firmly ensconced in cinematic mediocrity.
The problem may be Hercules’ approach to the story of the Greek demigod. This version, adapted from the Radical Comic, seeks to deconstruct the character’s mythical roots. Maybe he wasn’t an actual demi-god. Perhaps he completed his 12 Labors with a little help from his friends. What if all the stories we’ve heard were just exaggerations designed to increase the marketability of Hercules and his team of mercenaries?
Writing this out, the plot sounds really intriguing, but the film refuses to truly commit to this approach. It wants to have it both ways. First, it’s the casting. Dwayne Johnson would have been perfect as the lead had the filmmakers gone with the legend. He looks like a demigod, like he’s actually capable of accomplishing superhuman feats without the help of assistants. Maybe with a less bulked up actor, the “reality” take would have worked better, but here it just serves to undermine all of the physical work Johnson puts into the character. They surround him with strong supporting actors like Rufus Sewell, John Hurt and Ian McShane, but this turns into a problem as well as they pull focus from the lead. Ratner is so in love with the idea of a team picture, he doesn’t even give Hercules the closing shot of the movie. The camera pans across the survivors and lands on a supporting character (who gets the final line as well) before cutting to credits. Everything that Hercules does in this film is only accomplished with the help or motivation of his team. But Ratner even flinches here by teasing the audience who came for the super goods. We are told that he’s just a man, but then get moment after moment of Hercules doing things far outside the boundaries of normal human abilities.
Despite all that, Johnson is solid as Hercules. He brings the right amount of physicality and charm to an underwritten and underused “lead” character. Unfortunately the film seems unconvinced of his ability to headline without aid. Ratner gives us some pretty good action bits that are surprisingly violent for a PG-13 film. The fight scenes are all expertly choreographed with well framed physical stunts that isn’t made confusing by needless close-ups and hyper editing. The CG effects are decent. Not Michael Bay level, but certainly not Sy-Fy grade either. All of which makes the choice to demystify the whole thing even more puzzling and somewhat contradictory. We hear characters talk about centaurs and are even shown some pretty convincing footage before Ratner pulls the rug out from under us. The same happens with an oversized lion, and multi-headed wolf and sea serpent. The filmmakers had the resources to make a Clash of the Titans level epic with a much better lead actor but instead chose to make a movie about a strong dude and his buddies fighting other, less strong dudes.
With the mythology either stripped down or completely removed, this story just isn’t as interesting as the original form. The legend is why these characters and stories endure, not what might have been the reality behind them.