The Great One. The People’s Champion. The Most Electrifying Man in Entertainment. Franchise Viagra. Dwayne Johnson has been called all of these things and more. It’s not hard to understand why he’s such a popular celebrity. The man is the definition of charismatic and exudes confidence. His transition from wrestling legend to international movie star was slow and steady before he exploded in popularity the last couple of years. His latest cinematic achievement is Brett Ratner’s Hercules. Hercules claims to tell the true story behind the legend of the great hero Hercules (Dwayne Johnson). The film opens with the cliff notes version of the tale of Hercules before we find out that in this universe he was really just a mortal man, his only superpowers being incredible strength and the power of viral marketing! Despite what the trailer may have you believe, this film is not about the classic tale of Hercules and his 12 labors. Turns out Hercules is just a mercenary-leading band of merry men, and one woman, who play up the wild tales of Hercules’ exploits in order to scare their enemies and make more money. When we meet Hercules and his crew, they are finishing up a job after which they head to Thrace to work for its beloved king Cotys (John Hurt) and help them win a war against the evil Rhesus.
Director Brett Ratner is nowhere near as beloved as Dwayne Johnson. In fact most movie junkies hate him. I’ve always considered him a competent director and not much more. He has no distinct style and that holds true in this film. The filmmaking is just that: competent. The action is framed well enough to get a basic understanding of what’s happening from one moment to the next. This isn’t the artful and kinetic action filmmaking of something like The Raid franchise but at least it isn’t cut to ribbons. One of my favorite movies of all time is Rush Hour 2 thanks mainly to the incredible Jackie Chan. In the Rush Hour movies Ratner was smart enough to set the camera back and let Jackie Chan do his thing. There’s a similar vibe here except that instead of shots of Jackie Chan flipping and flying through the air we get shots of Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules just straight up demolishing people. Hercules punches, kicks, stabs, and clubs his way through hordes of enemies and it is a blast to watch.
One of the main reasons I head to the cinema is to have fun and to be entertained. I also enjoy going there to be challenged, to learn new things, and to examine life, but sometimes all you want to do is kick back and have fun. I had a lot of fun with Hercules. The movies is dragged down a bit by some slightly jarring tonal shifts when it dives into Hercules’ tortured past. The plot includes some twists and turns that you can see coming from a few miles away. Some events occur purely because the plot demands that they happen. The action includes some ridiculous and completely nonsensical moments. At one point Hercules throws a horse. A horse! On the other hand there is plenty of fun to be had. This film felt like a throwback to the silly action movies I enjoyed as a kid mixed with the comic book or anime style of storytelling that made me a fan of all those mediums. You have the hero leading a group of warriors who each have a specific fighting style and personality. Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) is cynical and sarcastic and wields knives. Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) is the classic female bad-ass and wreaks havoc on the battlefield as a master archer. Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) is wild and violent axe wielder that never speaks and has to be chained down when he sleeps. Lastly, Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) is a seer who can glimpse the future and fights with a long spear. Every actor is solid in their role with Hennie and McShane being especially entertaining and providing some comic relief. McShane in particular seems like he’s having a great time in the role.
The most interesting thing the film does is treat the myth of Hercules as precisely that, a myth. Did Hercules kill the hydra? Sure, but the hydra was just a bunch of guys in scary snake masks. I really enjoyed the way each story about Hercules had some kernel of truth in it before being exaggerated to epic proportions. The story brings up some interesting questions about the stories we tell about heroes and the culture of hero worship. Hercules and his mercenary band are happy to let the legend grow because it’s good for business but Hercules himself doesn’t seem to believe he is a hero. Unfortunately, all the movie does is raise a lot of interesting questions and never really gets around to answering them. The premise is enough to kickstart an adventure and then have Dwayne Johnson do all the heavy lifting, sometimes quite literally. Johnson gives a hundred and ten percent in the role and is inspiring, impressive, and even funny. The man is a walking, talking action figure. He’s the perfect person to build a movie of this type around. When a guy is punched and he goes flying through the air landing twenty feet away, and Dwayne Johnson’s massive fist is on the other end of that punch, you just shrug and say “Ok, that makes sense.” Hercules, directed by Brett Ratner and starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. If you think you can get on board with that, I heartily recommend checking this out. If that description sounds awful to you there’s nothing about Hercules that will surprise you. You could do a lot worse at the theaters this summer but frankly, you can also do better. Hey, at least it’s not another origin story.