'Hercules' fails to take advantage of its greatest asset
Director: Brett Ratner
Screenplay: Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, based on the graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars, by Steve Moore
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rebecca Ferguson, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Peter Mullan and Joseph Fiennes
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 38 minutes
July 25, 2014
(out of four)
How curious, that in a movie starring - and revolving entirely around - Dwayne Johnson as a legendary hero, a pair of supporting characters played by Rufus Sewell and Ian McShane are by far the most enjoyable things about it. I like Dwayne Johnson, both as a movie star and as an actor, and there is no excuse for him being perhaps the least interesting presence in a Dwayne Johnson Movie. Usually he's even the most entertaining thing in non-Dwayne Johnson Movies (Fast Five, Be Cool, Southland Tales). He's simply too magnetic to be treated as shabbily as Hercules treats him.
What Hercules does is strip Johnson of almost everything that makes him unique (leaving only the hulking physique) and surround him with a cast of eccentrics, jokesters and scene-stealers. This movie does the unthinkable and makes Dwayne Johnson (The Rock!), and Hercules (Hercules!) downright boring. This is criminal.
Everything that's so great about Johnson as a performer - his charm, his comic timing, his personality, the expressiveness of his face and smile - are almost completely eliminated. Even his charisma is strangely missing. What the filmmakers have left is a central character with virtually no personality at all, which is a problem given that they've written him as a powerful leader with an intensely loyal cadre of fellow warriors. But it's only among them that the film finds what little personality it has. The aforementioned Sewell (as Autolycus, the devil-may-care charmer who takes casual pleasure in his lifestyle as a thief and mercenary) and McShane (as Amphiaraus, who communicates with the gods and has foreseen his own death) provide the film with its only light-hearted moments, and the two actors eat up their periodic moments in the spotlight. Even the other two - the feral mute Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) and the Amazonian archeress Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) - are more full-bodied creations than the title character. Hercules is just the empty, musclebound fulcrum on which the story rests.
The script tries to give him a tragic backstory - wife and three children murdered, Hercules framed for the crime, forcing him into the life of a mercenary - but it's largely irrelevant until the inevitable moment when the truth is revealed to all.
In the big picture, it's only appropriate that the central role and its A-list star are wasted so badly; the film's entire M.O. is to take everything that might be idiosyncratic about it and sand it all down into an indistinct, impersonal blob. And that goes right down to the core ideas in the script, which are actually pretty interesting - in theory, anyway. In this take on the iconic character, the myth precedes the man. We begin with Hercules' fantastical origins - that he is the son of Zeus, born to a mortal woman. That he has constantly stymied attempts at his life, courtesy of Hera, Zeus' jealous wife. That he heroically completed the Twelve Labors, including defeating a seemingly indestructible lion with his bare hands.
The legends continue to be told on the battlefield, but as we discover, those stories are embellished at the very least, completely made up at most. In an early action sequence, Hercules seemingly - from the perspective of the antagonists, anyway - fights off nearly an entire gang of thieves all by himself. In reality, his cohorts are hiding in the shadows - one armed with knives, another with arrows, another with a spear - to help make the job look easy. But it's the myth of Hercules that prevails.
The legends of his exploits are what get Hercules his latest gig - defending the Thracian kingdom from the ongoing attacks of Rheseus' army, at the behest of Lord Cotys (John Hurt) and his daughter Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson). The Thracian general, Sitacles (Peter Mullan), doesn't believe much of what he's heard about Hercules, but it certainly behooves him to let his soldiers believe it.
Again and again, the film goes back to that contrast between legends and truths, and how those legends affect everyone's impressions of everyone else. Each army passes along wild tales and rumors of the army they're fighting next. Hercules may or may not be a demigod, may or may not be the son of Zeus; all that matters is that the armies behind him believe it. Rheseus' army may or may not be centaurs; all that matters is that the Thracian forces believe it could be true. In this respect, Hercules is like the dumb Greek cousin to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Whether those ideas come from the screenplay itself or - more likely - Steve Moore's graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars, the filmed version doesn't do them justice. That would be too much ambition for this movie. Hercules is competently but unimaginatively made (or, to put it more concisely, it's directed by Brett Ratner). It has no desire to stand out; everything about it is designed to be as generic as possible, from the costumes to the choreography of the action. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Fernando Velázquez's terrible original score, which sounds like what would happen if a computer program were fed every sweeping, triumphant, battle-ready score from every historical action epic ever made, and then spit out a composite result.
But all of that mediocrity could have been saved if the movie had really milked its star power - if it really let Dwayne Johnson chew into the character. He's no stranger to roles driven by single-minded, even one-dimensional determination (in George Tillman Jr's underrated, gloriously disreputable Faster, for example, Johnson's over-the-top intensity - in a nearly wordless performance - stretches into maniacal territory, which is what gives the film its propulsive energy and unhinged tone); but in this case, he's little more than a collection of muscles and armor, not so much a movie star as a movie-star façade. I want the real Dwayne Johnson back.