In an age where intelligent discussions about TV producing more sophisticated content than movies these days are becoming some kind of norm, Brett Ratner's Hercules doesn't do the movies at large any favors. The popularity of Game of Thrones has the mainstream getting used to nitty-gritty old-world dealings drenched in ultraviolent bloodshed, delightfully gratuitous sex, and a sharp medieval wit that could (literally) slice heads. By inevitable comparison, the classical numbskull cheesiness of the new Hercules is left looking incredibly dull and embarrassing. The new film makes zero attempt to dish out any kind of modern day edge or brains, making contemporary audiences genuinely confused as to why the producers didn't think no-holds-barred barbarianism was the way to go with this one. If you have to feel sorry for anyone, then do so for Dwayne Johnson, who is damagingly hindered by a cornball script and inept directing as his boyhood dream of embodying a mythical hero goes unfortunately ill-served.
The film introduces us to the Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) of ancient myth: the half-human, half-god son of Zeus who endured 12 mythic labors which included defeating a gigantic boar and going head-to-head with a seemingly indestructible lion. Yet we are quickly told that Hercules' myth is simply a yarn carefully curated by the man himself, with great assistance from the storytelling theatrics of his nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). The truth is that Hercules is an embittered warrior who lost his family in a mysterious act of violence. He is now a lost soul reduced to offering his fighting skills and loyal band-of-warriors up to whoever is willing to pay large chunks of gold. The hulking sword-for-hire comes into a lucrative deal when he is told that a kingdom in Thrace needs help warding off a fearsome army trying to overthrow the land. The kingdom is ruled by Lord Cotys (John Hurt), a wealthy king who instructs Hercules to teach his people how to fight like an army to defend their own turf. Yet as Hercules goes through the motions of his heroic myth, he realizes that not all is what it seems and that he may be fighting for the wrong side. This causes our hero to ponder the depths of his damaged soul to see if he can gather enough fire within his will to find something truly worth fighting for outside of mythic lore.
Director Brett Ratner tends to fall into that camp somewhere next to Michael Bay representing everything that makes most smart people groan about Hollywood filmmaking. You'd have to be an unimaginative teenager not to grasp his heavy reliance of old-school Hollywood complacency which bare scarce inklings of sophistication. For my money, his one virtue is sometimes capturing the great humor that arises when shrewd movie stars meet preposterous genre situations, which explains Chris Tucker & Jackie Chan milking the Rush Hour franchise for gold and the affection moviegoers recall for Nicolas Cage's epic temper-tantrums in The Family Man. To me, the most original thing he ever dished out to the movies is the masterstroke of having Pierce Brosnan's master thief and Woody Harrelson's determined FBI agent becoming peculiar buddies in the fluff-minded After the Sunset. Yet this time, Ratner shows his incompetence with a callow script and dated-looking action scenes that are completely oblivious to every advancement made in the swords-and-sandals epics since Spartacus. While genre purists may be delighted by the dusty formalities on display, they'll quickly be bored once they realize there's no intelligent bits to latch onto. And while an argument can be made that this film was engineered simply for 12-year-old boys, such an audience will seriously wonder where the gleeful style and ferocious energy of 300 is at.
Dwayne Johnson has stated in several interviews that he was born to play Hercules, and considering what an intense and humorous muscle man image he's crafted throughout his Hollywood career, it wasn't hard to agree with him. That's why it's a rather bruising disappointment that Johnson doesn't have the hyperbolic grandeur the role cries out for. In practice, his performance is somewhere between an advanced-thespian Sylvester Stallone and a puffed-up Keanu Reeves. Perhaps a more bad-ass script and hard-R tone would've brought out a hero worth rooting for, but Johnson comes across rather bland in such a fangless vehicle. Say what you will about Arnold Schwarzenegger in his old man-mountain days, but he could play to the camera like nobody's business and his voice could match Bogart's in terms of incongruent pizazz. Arnold's mission in life was to energize cheese towards some kind of bizarre holiness while Johnson makes the mistake of trying to retain some kind of dignity. The only moment of any real excitement comes towards the end, where a shirtless and raging Johnson, looking like a caveman Rambo, freaks out and starts smashing things while all his muscles get ample camera time. It's the only moment that appropriately grasps why such movies exist in the first place: to glamorize the strongman ideal as they conquer their surroundings through brutal force of will.
More than one bulked-up movie star on occasion, Johnson included, has noted how the Steve Reeves incarnation of the Hercules myth inspired them to pump the iron and become Hollywood warriors in their own right. So the highest compliment that can be paid to the latest Hercules is that it may inspire 12-year-olds everywhere to hit the gym with the hopes of becoming one of the future Expendables someday. For the rest of us, you'll be seriously jonesing for a Ridley Scott epic just to see this kind of material done right. As the credits began to roll, I never had more of a craving to watch Gladiator in all my life. In an era obsessed with Game of Thrones, and true grit in general, it's shocking that Hollywood didn't feel a calculated need to give us a brooding, bloodthirsty, almost nightmarish Hercules that could truly illuminate harrowed heroism most disillusioned stiffs can relate to these days. Yet as it is, this Hercules is vapid, forgettable, and will be mighty hard to distinguish from all the other low-level B-flicks from this genre.
While the creatures in Godzilla are evoked with the latest in state-of-the-art CGI, their movements and behavior directly copy the hokey brawling so prominent at the dawn of this film series, and that turns out to be a popcorn blessing. Edwards wonderfully marries the camera and effects to create alluring imagery (my favorite being a barely-conscious Ford being lured away from a nuclear blast by helicopter), but there’s no denying how the creatures are mimicking the cheesy monster movie mayhem of cinematic yesteryear. While their movements are more agile, and Seamus McGarvey’s dark and grayish cinematography helps mask the silliness, these mutant wrestling matches deliver the jolly goods you’ve always treasured within these movies. Godzilla’s climactic “finishing move” had me cheering out loud in the theater.