In what some would call the surprise of the summer, Brett Ratner’s Hercules – the second film based on the classical demigod this year – isn’t unwatchable. After Renny Harlin’s on-screen vomit, expectations for this second … Herculean epic were at an all-time low across the board. How did it all go so right?
Hercules (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is, as Disney taught us all at a tender age, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, much to the ire of Zeus’ divine wife, Hera. As its source material, Steve Moore’s “Hercules” comic book, did, Ratner’s iteration presupposes that all of the supernatural mythology surrounding this hero is naught but legend. All the centaurs and three-headed dogs and trips to Hades are simply tall tales. Instead, Hercules is the muscle-bound leader of a mighty band of mercenary warriors, selling their martial prowess to the highest bidder.
‘Hercules’ Trailer Blends Classical Myth with Epic Action
While the treatment of such a well-known tale is certainly revolutionary, the plot is decidedly not. It’s standard action movie fare: badass loner with a shady past decides to work for an ambitious mogul, all is not as it seems, alliances shift, bing bang boom, happy ending. Yet, despite all that and lackluster dialogue to boot, Johnson and his supporting cast make it hard to roll your eyes. Tired one liners like “Do I look afraid” and “I can’t leave without setting things right” are deftly delivered by Johnson, enough so that you forget they’re in every other action movie you’ve seen.
The supporting cast includes Joseph Fiennes (what a get!) and John Hurt in convincingly sinister roles, and Hercules’ lackeys (including Rufus Sewell and Scandanavian players Aksel Hennie and Ingrid Berdal) are a joy to watch. Ian McShane plays an adequately tortured soothsayer with a sharp wit, but Hercules’ nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), takes the comic relief cake. Ritchie should be careful – should he steal any more scenes from the Rock, he’ll likely find himself in a full-body cast.
Though they are gratifying, “epic” is just too strong a word to describe the battles. To its credit, Hercules utilizes actual ancient war machines like the shield wall and the bladed chariot. The sword-/bow-/club-play is visceral enough, and at times you really feel like you’re in the thick of a bronze-age battle. All too often, however, the big payoff involves the Rock bench-pressing something that no mortal man could ever bench-press (if I recall correctly, the progression goes something like human-horse-big stone-flaming stone-bigger stone). Don’t get me wrong, a film about mythology’s strongest man should have some inhuman feats of strength, but surely Ratner could’ve mixed things up by the third power-lift.
Jean-Vincent Puzos’ production design, though at times over-the-top and obvious, deserves great recognition. Sure, it’s not shy about taking some of the pages out of 300’s playbook, but a more saturated color palette and a host of breathtaking set pieces sets it apart from Frank Miller’s homoerotic gore-fest. The costumes are both convincing and reflect the minds and machinations of their characters perfectly; truly, Puzos, not Iolaus or Atalanta, is the unsung hero of this blockbuster.
It’s certainly not Oscar fodder, but excluding the gentrified Disney cartoon of the 90s, this newest Hercules flick is certainly a contender for the best cinematic adaptation of the popular myth. It’s a 3-D sword and sandal moneymaker, and it’s not trying to be anything that it’s not. Sit back, grab a big tub of popcorn, and be sure to manage those expectations. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, I’m sure.