Hercules Review: The (Not Now, But) Future King

There’s probably a great big, awesome movie from the first 15 minutes of Hercules. At the opening of Brett Ratner’s film, Hercules’ nephew, Iolas (Reece Ritchie) narrates the beginning of his behemoth uncle’s legend: born as a demigod, required to fight 12 creatures to prove his status.

Either he, or Ratner, is introduced as having a potential Oedipus complex. Following around his gorgeous mother (Karolina Szymczak, whom Ratner seemed to spend the most time lighting to make sure he could get just enough of a PG-13 nipple shadow and just enough of a 3D bent-over, post-nursing cleavage to express that, indeed, Hercules loved his mother) young Hercules dutifully kills the snakes that have been sent to kill her. But if your father is Zeus, you of course cannot kill him. But you can kill hydra snake beasts, wolves and a lion. And when you’re Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) as played by The Rock, you wear that lion head as a hat.

But then … the legend stops.

What a gip! We only briefly get to see Hercules hunt and kill three beasts. Then we cut to Iolas who’s being dangled over a spike that will impale his scrotum (more fun Freud winks!), who’s orating these grand legends to implore his captors to let him go. Because Hercules will come to rescue him. And come he does. With his troop of tropes/fellow mercenaries: the wisecracking friend since boyhood (Rufus Sewell), the grizzled shaman (Ian McShane), the warrior whose war ghosts haunt him so much that he cannot speak, only grunt and tear at meat (Aksel Hennie) and the gorgeous woman warrior who proves that she belongs with the men (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). 

After quashing the legend and rescuing Iolas, Hercules and his merry band of Empire contracted killers move onto the next assignment: training an Empire of farmers to take on an army of green black metal enthusiasts who all have shaved heads, tribal tattoos and stalactite chin pubes. Apparently they take orders from a band of centaurs who can poison minds. (Awesome!)

But then it turns out that the centaurs aren’t real. They’re just some dudes on horses. 

I’m definitely all for realism and grounding heroes. And I don’t think a critic should have gripes with a film for not becoming what they want it to be. But Ratner makes it obvious by giving us a fun glimpse of the legend, that this legend is a lot more fun when is mom is a super-babe who tempted Zeus himself and Hercules is a demigod battling creatures both real and other-worldly … than it is when they’re trying to prove he’s human.

It’s unfortunate because Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was crafted by the Movie Gods and spit out off a 3D printer born to play Hercules. He’s spent years slaying mythical wrestlers, bodybuilding with Mark Wahlberg and protecting the children of high-ranking scientists to finally get this moment. And he has to play it entirely straight and humble.

Cinematographer Dante Spinotti (Heat, L.A. Confidential) knows what he has in front of him, and shoots him like the God that he is: lovingly tracing each bicep vein and each stretching crack of Mr. Johnson’s pecs that appear to be molded from the sands and mud that could only exist in the earth’s core. I mean, Hercules has proven that he can pick up and throw a horse as a weapon! Give us more of that. Don’t try to prove that he’s one of us. It’s obvious that Dwayne Johnson himself is not one of us. Johnson is the rare 80s action hero who walks among us, standing taller than the rest and able to deliver charisma and absurd flexes of strength. Not every action film now needs to get Christian-Bale-hero serious. 

But, with the exception of Bolsø Berdal (someone please give her an action lead! Nerds please let me know, what Scandinavian warrior woman character is out there to be made? And make it so.) the human Johnson mostly has to go his mortal acting ways alone.

McShane got a lot of laughs from the audience that I caught it with. But to me he just seemed bored. Or perhaps he didn’t know how Ratner felt about rehearsal beforehand and was acting out in defiance with staid line delivery. Two acting greats, John Hurt and Peter Mullan, appear to join him in that protest and give one-note performances as the elected leaders of that farming army. Joseph Fiennes shows up from only Zues knows where and hams it up in a way that would’ve been appropriate if they were still making that movie from the first 15 minutes. And because they’ve achingly gone to great lengths to make Hercules human, his sidekick (Sewell) gets all the one-liners. (One exception: Hercules gets to sneak in an R-rated centaur line into a PG-13 movie with great zeal. Again, reminding us what could have been).

Alan Moore wants you to boycott Hercules because his late-friend, Steve Moore wouldn’t have liked what his comic book became. Supposedly, Marvel might want to see how Hercules performs before inviting The Rock into their universe. Which is unfortunate, because, I can’t recommend going. But I crave a properly utilized Dwayne Johnson. And this isn’t it. 

All the chanting of “Hercules” in the film makes me think that if Brett Ratner didn’t know how to properly utilize this magnificent action specimen properly for an entire film, maybe he should’ve continued his mounting of a comeback for Eddie Murphy. Now he’s left two performers high and dry.

Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.