Dwayne Johnson comes to screen in a surprisingly fresh take on Hercules! But does he pull off a classic sword and sandals film by himself? Or is he hindered by on-off director Brett Ratner? 411's Terry Lewis has the word.
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson - Hercules John Hurt - Cotys, King Of Thrace Rufus Sewell - Autolycus Ian McShane - Amphiaraus Aksel Hennie - Tydeus Reece Ritchie - Iolaus Ingrid Bols Berdal - Atalanta Rebecca Ferguson - Ergenia Peter Mullan - Sitacles Joseph Fiennes - King Eurystheus
As we approach the twilight of the summer blockbuster season, there's been a fairly noticeable lack of a certain box office monolith this summer - last year's world box office champion, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson - until now. Returning back to the big screen, this time he's ditched cars & guns and teamed up with "love him or hate him" director Brett Ratner to take on legendary Greek character Hercules. Ignore those dodgy promotional materials and Ratner's name though, since whilst not perfect, Rockules is an unexpectedly good & entertaining fantasy epic.
Son of Zeus, half Greek god, half human, demi-god Hercules (Johnson, Fast & Furious 6) is more than happy to let the legend of his 12 Labors to carry him into being a high end monster hunter. He's trying to save up enough gold for a quiet place next to the Black Sea to live out the rest of his days quietly, after the brutal accusations of him murdering his family. Herc is still a man who abides by a moral code and willing to serve whatever task if the reason is right... as long as his mercenary pals, led by the seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane, Cuban Fury), are well compensated. The Thracian King, Cotys (John Hurt, Doctor Who), tasks Herc & co. to train an army in final payday whilst Herc is haunted by his role of whether he is as amazing as the legend says he is.
You wanted a Hercules, well you get one with Johnson. Despite some intial reservations in the promotional material on if he can pull it off or not, Johnson's insane workout schedule and serious effort has turned him into an all natural mastodon of a human. Hand in hand with his endless charisma, Johnson delivers massively on taking on a demigod with character development. Odd to have something like that when at the end of the day he could be placed there just to look the part, but Johnson's seldom seen acting ability is drawn out here by the conflict Herc goes through whether he is as truly great as he is or not. A fine physical performance too, when it gets to the final chapter with Herc hulking up and accomplishing impressive feats of strength to bust him and his gang of merry mercs and hangers on out, you're ready to go mental and punch the air in celebration. That's how much Johnson gets you on side with his performance.
I get a feeling that McShane is jokingly hated by other actors because he simply out does everyone else on the supporting cast. His natural wit and charisma is splendid still at his old age as he threatens to steal the film with every utterance and prediction of his death in his job as a seer. Hell, a scene where everyone is having a dramatic discussion of Herc's family is utterly stolen when a snoozing McShane delivers a killer moment or two. His egging on as well at a captured Hercules to show his true hero self regardless is one of the most inspirational things I've heard all year in McShane's delivery alone. Hurt is fine as the potentially dodgy king with what you think for the most part is an average reoccurrence of a traditional role - until he delivers the second best line in the film in the final sequence. The rest of the cast works alright as a crutch to help Johnson. Everyone does what they have to do with noone being particular amazing or bad in a solid group effort. Princesses are Princesses, Amazons are Amazonian and Undead Marauders are undead. And Marauding.
So the big twist which sees Hercules stand head and shoulders above the batch of recent mediocre swords& sandals fantasy flicks and telly is that there's a very well played element of doubt over Herc's completion over his mythical 12 trials. Using his gang of mercenary friends to help build up his legend through shooting off goons when the head bounty isn't looking and using his nephew to spin wild and fantastic over-exasperations of his trials, Herc is a man in demand as the head mercenary (although he admits he doesn't do it for the money himself, only his friends). Based on a indie comic book series, the crux of Herc's highly engaging character arc is he believes his own hype as this strongman machine of a demigod or if he's overhyped. There are little moments which help this conflict play out as a mystery, like when a solider asks how Herc beat a boar with unbreakable skin, one of his friends is all too eager to jump in with "Well he has a unbreakable sword! Duh!" whilst the soldier extras ooo in unison. Even more aspects add to it like whilst you know that Herc slayed the Hydra monster as part of the trials, it's revealed later on it was just guys in costume. There's that element of doubt which plays about on if Herc's accomplishments were really that great and if he deemed worthy to be called the son of Zeus.
I'll give director Brett Ratner this - despite having some very black marks on his filmography (X-Men: The Last Stand being the stand out), he has crafted out a shockingly nice and slick looking film. He manages to capture the untamed countryside of ancient Greece, ranging from impressive CG brutal mountains to the untainted yet clear fields before armies do battle. The clear, untainted sheer whiteness of Athens is possibly the best bit of CG in the whole film as it's brightness pierces your memory. Not only that but all of the three epic action sequences are superb. Playing up the training sequences are all fine but I really like the Roman-ified set pieces with shield walls to protect the king/general type and standing ground so noone can get through. The Undead Marauders Herc and co. meets halfway through is epic to say the least as well as the follow up final battle at the end of Act 2 which shows how you can topple a bigger army than yours with effectiveness. Clearly some thought has gone into these gorgeous looking fight sequences and it's one of Ratner's strengths at it's best here. The cherry on the icing on the cake is the far more good than bad script with several top draw quality lines with Johnson stealing the whole summer, no, the whole decade of film, with his one liner after said fight at the end of Act 2. A bit of a return to form for Ratner and this should put him in some good stead in Hollywood again.
In fact, the only real criticism I can level at Hercules is the out of nowhere reveal of who was behind it all long. It really just does come out of the blue to blow off a deeply uninteresting and lazy subplot of whether Herc killed his family off or not - course he didn't, it's a Hollywood blockbuster. Our hero protagonist would never do such a thing. Also I really fail to see why teaching Herc such a lesson would put him in his place when he clearly says throughout the film he has no grandeurs of power and only wants a quiet family life. The rest would be all a bit petty on the whole but still worth mentioning. Whilst the CG is at a good standard all round, those two snakes at the start that attempt to bump off baby Herc are pretty poor looking in comparison. Seeing this in 3-D like I did does not enhance the film at all since there's nothing there in 3-D. It's a massive waste of money. Aside from the new twist, the plot overall is nothing original with no fresh turns to go down. You know who will be screwing over Herc and co. at some point in the film. We only really see one or two glimpses of Herc taking on the 12 Labors he's famed for, which is fine and not what the films is about but at the same time you wouldn't mind seeing Johnson fighting a impenetrable skinned giant boar for five minutes. And finally, despite it being a reasonable excuse in McShane's monologue and totally fits in the character arc of the film, you will be left a tad confused on whether or not Hercules is a demigod as half the film they've spent claiming. There's so much evidence to both sides, you'll grudged that there's no definition but then if there's room for a sequel to explore on it so more, I'm happy to be first in line to find out.
The 411: You've seen this film before a dozen times with the twists, turns and reveals but the sheer size & charisma of Johnson and the cool fresh take on a old character, with the men behind the man, propels Hercules into a solid recommendation. I went in with fairly low to middling expectations and walked out pleasantly surprised at how good it ended up being. Sure it loses it's way in places and you want there to be some foot stomping to the ground in definitive answers but what is something with charm without one or two flaws? An entertaining bit of fantasy escapism and easily the best 'swords and sandals' fantasy romp since Conan The Destroyer.