Life’s harsh as a demigod – you’re truly more than human but convincing others can result in ugly stares. Brett Ratner’s latest goes through a similar, if unsympathetic, ordeal – it’s a shoddy product being marketed as “I’m popcorn material." Now even popcorn films might find that insulting, believe me.
Speaking of demigod, the Hercules you find here isn’t one. That wasn’t a sly remark; it is the character in Steve Moore’s five-issue comic which this film is based on. As a mercenary-for-hire, Hercules (Pain and Gain’s Dwayne Johnson) is apparently more man than God, being able to attain that jaw-dropping mythical reputation thanks to the stories of his nephew Iolaus (The Lovely Bones’s Reece Ritchie) and the skills from his friends – sardonic knife-thrower Autolycus (Dark City’s Rufus Sewell), skilled Amazonian archer Atalanta (Chernobyl Diaries’s Ingrid Bolsø Berdal aka Nicole Kidman in warrior get-up), chilled soothsayer Amphiaraus (Death Race’s Ian McShane) and animalistic mute Tydeus (Headhunters’s Aksel Hennie).
The thought of Hercules being the 2.0 version of Mathayus from The Scorpion King constantly runs across my mind, a role that fits Johnson well enough it highlights his potential as a movie star. Thunder strikes twice here. Hercules is Johnson’s show once again – the runtime, dialogue, development and camera angles all favor him. With the usual combo of mass, height and brawn, not to mention the level of charisma he displays in every performance, you easily buy Johnson as Hercules. Just look at the ways Ratner and crew make sure that you do: he’s the largest person in the space, he towers above every other performer, he always leads the pack, he draws first blood in battles and he’s shirtless for all of Act III.
Notice that I didn’t include “he performs the 12 Labors." Despite being featured so prominently in the promo materials, the film whizzes through them in the first five minutes or so much like World Cup’s match highlights. Personally it doesn’t matter, but I’m sure many viewers, especially those who aren’t aware of the comics, will be cheated by the rushed storytelling. Said problem is also seen in Ratner’s directing style, making sequences feel choppy, continuous-but-strangely-jumbled and ultimately non-resonant regardless of mood or situation. It’s a sad thing, for only in really short bursts will you be able to see Ratner and his regular photographer Dante Spinotti (the third Narnia) recognize the grandness, and subsequently the potential, of the production. No wonder why X-Men: The Last Stand received the ‘fires and pitchforks’ reception, and only its wonderful score is exempt from the hate.
What keeps this movie afloat are its comic moments and a few of its supporting actors. Though the swords, sandals, costumes and accents might fool you, the dialogue is surprisingly 21st century; the jokes – some of them – are effective enough to distract from how thin Ryan Condal and Evan Spilotopoulos’s (a bunch of sequels for Disney’s classics) script is. One can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Rebecca Ferguson (starz’s The White Queen), Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare In Love), Joe Anderson (The Crazies), British pros like Peter Mullan (Children of Men) and John Hurt (seen here stealing every scene he’s in like he did in Snowpiercer) to fuse their lines with legitimacy and gravitas amidst the one-dimensional (read: not Hercules) nature they’ve been written and Ratner’s eager-to-the-finish-line direction.
If anyone’s asking – yes, I know this isn’t an awards-worthy movie. I do expect it to not make me notice the quality of the popcorn or that I’ve forgotten to buy one though. Oh, how a mighty figure can be ruined by puny filmmaking. That said, between this and Renny Harlin’s rendition released in January, pick this. If you can, however, forget both and see the Disney animation. But if you really do have a choice, read up the Greek mythology.