Ever since 300, there has been a marked resurgence of sword-and-sandal Greek and Roman epics gracing the silver screen. While Gladiator in 2000 perhaps ushered in the style of spear-throwing action, but it was 300 that took it to the pec-flexing place it is today. Brett Ratner’s Hercules isn’t even the first such film this year to be about the legendary Greek demigod, but it might be the one people were most skeptical of. Who cares if the Kellen Lutz one was no good? This one stars Dwayne Johnson, for Zeus’ sake! It has a decent budget! The name Ratner usually instills a certain degree of caution still stemming from the ill-conceived X-Men: The Last Stand, but things like Tower Heist were at least enjoyable. And Hercules is in 3D, which always bears some cause for concern. But, after a screening in San Diego introduced by The Rock himself, I can say firmly – Hercules is fun.
I know; it’s crazy, right? Everything about it seemed destined for the dumb heap, but it’s actually a pretty solid action movie. It’s got lots of battles, pretty likable characters, and a plot that’s interesting enough without being overly complicated (until the end, of course). I kept expecting it to fall apart the whole time, but it holds together, however tenuously, a lot better than a lot of the other movies of its ilk that have sprung up in the post-300 days. And this much is true: the Rock’s Hercules makes King Leonidas look like Jim Parsons.
Based on Steve Moore’s comic series for Radical, the film is a revision of the classic Hercules mythos, wherein his half-godliness is kept ambiguous but the legend is perpetuated by his nephew to strike fear in his enemies and wonder in those around him. In actuality, Hercules is a mercenary with a team at his back who attempt to get as much money as they can defending villages or dispatching warlords for the rich but oppressed. After another successful fight, the Herc crew are hired by a wealthy lord (John Hurt) who fears his people will be decimated by an army of centaurs (whether or not they really ARE centaurs is also in question). However, in order to defeat them, Hercules and company will have to train the men of the village to be a proper military machine, which is easier said than done. Once that happens, though, it becomes apparent that he wasn’t hired for the purpose he originally thought.
Now, one thing that is immediately evident from this movie is that a lot of material was cut out. The movie runs a brisk 98 minutes and certain characters and subplots are very clearly underdeveloped, especially that of Joseph Fiennes’ effete and ruthless king who Hercules used to serve. He’s little more than a cameo, though he’s clearly a much more integral part of the plot than his screentime would suggest. An epic so short just doesn’t seem right, even though I don’t think anyone wanted to sit through a 3 hour Hercules movie. We just have to be content that relationships grow and change much faster than they do in real life, or even movie life.
One thing that helps propel the movie, however, are the performances. Johnson is a charismatic lead and gives the titular hero the proper mix of softness and savagery (he throws a horse over his shoulder at one point…). Surrounding him are a number of well-known and respected British actors. Along with Hurt and Fiennes there’s also Rufus Sewell as Hercules’ right-hand man, Peter Mullan as Hurt’s lead general, and Ian McShane as the elder statesman of Hercules’ team, who can see the future in riddles and knows roughly the time of his own death. McShane becomes the heart of the movie.
The action is good, we end up caring about the main characters, and the story isn’t condescending or nearly as formulaic as it might be. These might sound like faint praises, but when your expectations are as low as mine and most people’s were, a pleasant surprise of it being pretty good is as welcome as happening upon a newly-cleaned Aegean stable.