Film Review | Hercules

It may be dumb as a bag of hammers, but Brett Ratner's Dwayne Johnson-starring take on the mythical muscleman Hercules remains undeniably entertaining. 

Rock of ages: Dwayne Johnson clobbers some invaders in this dumb-but-fun slice of myth-pulp
Rock of ages: Dwayne Johnson clobbers some invaders in this dumb-but-fun slice of myth-pulp

Generally speaking, any film that comes with the tag ‘Directed by Brett Ratner’ signifies one thing, and one thing only. And that thing is ‘institutionalised mediocrity’.

Even a cursory glance at Mr Ratner’s lucrative but scattershot CV will be enough to confirm that we’re not exactly dealing with a Coen Bros-level auteur here. What’s the connection between Rush Hour (and it’s sequels), Red Dragon, X-Men: The Last Stand? The fact that they were directed by Brett Ratner, and not much else. Ratner is not an artist with a distinct cinematic vision: he’s a gun-for-hire who is capable of producing either competent genre hokum at best, risible garbage at worst, and doesn’t seem to be particularly keen on busting out of his comfort zone any time soon.

Because he lacks stylistic consistency and ambition, he’s made a dog’s breakfast out of ‘X3’ – undoing all the good work Bryan Singer did for the previous films, which also led the latter director to conveniently skip over the events of X3 for his latest X-Men reboot – and he made a competent thriller out of the Silence of the Lambs prequel Red Dragon, when it could arguably have been so much more (perhaps NBC’s delectable series Hannibal is evidence of that).

In short, he’s the perfect director to helm a generic-as-can-be action blockbuster, one which hopefully also comes packaged with a bankable and consistently charismatic leading man/lady, and whose premise ensures at least a degree of brand recognition to reel the punters in from the word go.

A film a that’s, in fact, a lot like ‘Hercules’ – the Dwayne Johnson-starring comic book adaptation that recasts the titular demi-god as a mercenary and places him in a story that’s equal parts ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘Clash of the Titans’.

Yes… if there’s a film that plays to Ratner’s strengths, it’s this. Though Guardians of the Galaxy may be the blockbuster darling of the season, Hercules – culled from the Radical Comics mini-series authored by the late Steve Moore – comes in as a close second: it may have less colourful characters and vintage action movie zingers in the place of ‘Guardians’s inspired bursts of wit, but it’s an equally unpretentious and beat-perfect piece of entertainment.

It’s a shame to have to reveal the premise of the film so early, but then the (mythical) ruse is rumbled in the very first scene after all. It’s a “you think you know, but you have no idea” kind of situation for this Hercules (Johnson) here, as the muscular mercenary turns out to be just that – a sword-for-hire, stalking ancient Greece for lucrative – and dangerous – missions to undertake in exchange for hefty piles of gold. But just because it looks as though our protagonist is no more than flesh and blood, that doesn’t mean he can’t mythologise himself, in the interests of marketing.

Which he does with aplomb, allowing his companion and “nephew” Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) to spin the familiar yarn about the 12 labours in an attempt to strike fear in the heart of his would-be enemies. But this is naturally a task he can’t undertake alone, and so he’s joined – albeit secretly – by a rag-tag band of fellow bounty hunters, among them the pragmatic Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), token female archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), a PTSD-ridden berserker warrior Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) and the amusingly fatalistic seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane).

When the (clearly out of place) pretty princess Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) summons our band of misfits to her father’s court, the job appears to be relatively straightforward: help Lord Cotys (John Hurt) parry an army of invaders that has been usurping the land.

So far, so Seven Samurai. But all may not be as it seems… and we’re not just talking about our bluffing hero here.

The recent Hollywood tic is to make everything ‘dark’ and to obsessively reboot and prequelise existing franchises through that same dark lens (see Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise; and more recently Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). But though it exhibits a lot of the same traits ­– Johnson’s Hercules is not only a demystified, back-to-basics hero, he is also plagued by family tragedy – Ratner’s Hercules is mercifully free of excessive dourness. Liberating the story of any supernatural overtones allows it to be a meat-and-potatoes adventure romp; and thankfully, Hercules’ internal turmoil doesn’t bog the film down – it just gives him enough motivation to enact a (here satisfyingly classic) self-realisation/revenge hero arc.

You want so-bad-they’re-good one-liners? You’ve got them. You want hi-octane knifing-and-punching sessions? You’ve got them. You want slumming luvvies hamming it up with infectious gusto? You’ve got them, in the form of John Hurt and Ian McShane, who chew the scenery so hard it probably turned to paste by the time filming wrapped.

It’s a shame that such an otherwise perfect piece of pulp cinema comes with a potentially fatal chink its armour. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just point out that the supernatural ambiguity at the core of its premise is stretched beyond breaking point come the final reel, to serve as something of a too-easy resolution. But it’s likely that you won’t care by that point.

It’s somewhat heartening that a film headlined by the – always on-form and effortlessly charismatic – Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson blows other attempts to portray the ‘real history’ behind myth and folk heroes out of the water – attempts helmed by directors far more heavily decorated than a hack like Ratner. Forget about Antoine Fuqua’s Clive Owen-starring King Arthur (2004) and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010).

Ratner is not interested in playing pseudo-historian, and neither is he setting out to craft an Oscar-baiting epic. And his film is all the better – or, at least, all the more fun – for it.

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