Film Review: Hercules (2014)

When one thinks of Brett Ratner – one of Hollywood’s resident homophobes – great filmmaking doesn’t exactly spring to mind. Over the past ten years this paunchy businessman killed a billion dollar franchise (X-Men), gradually made another irrelevant (Rush Hour), and even found time to desexualize Pierce Brosnan and Selma Hayek – an idea one would have thought impossible before 2004’s loathsome After the Sunset.

Thus, things did not look good when it was announced that the Rat was going to direct one of the two Hercules adaptations that came out this year. It didn’t matter that his movie was working off a comic book with an intriguing premise (where Herc’s godlike status is supposedly ambiguous), or that one of Hollywood’s most enjoyable actors (the artist formerly known as The Rock) had signed up to play the titular strongman.

Unsurprisingly, the end result is a film that is characteristically mediocre. Hercules is by no means a travesty – at least not when you compare it to the disastrous X-Men: The Last Stand. However, all the Ratner staples show up, including: thinly-sketched characters, middling dialogue, and an incoherent story that feels like it was cobbled together by greedy, vermin-like fingers.

But let’s recount the plot, shall we? Dwayne Johnson is Hercules – need I say more? Well, maybe I do, because in this incarnation the mythological demigod has been reduced to mercenary status. Gone are the winged horses and unbelievable feats of strength, replaced by a motley crew of efficient albeit rather colorless killers, who follow Hercules with nearly unwavering devotion.

Also absent, or at least dramatically altered, are the iconic Twelve Labors, a component integral to the character’s basic mythology. In this context the labors – in addition to other supernatural elements – are repackaged as little more than hyperbolic elements of Hercules’s warrior reputation, an aspect actively encouraged by the members of his gang. Essentially, this isn’t the Disney Hercules stupid, nor is it the Italian variation from the 50s and 60s. Even if one disavows such memories however, and accepts this new take on the hero, there is still a likelihood of coming away disappointed; the film just isn’t very good.

Amazingly, for as basic as the plot is, the film itself feels strangely obtuse. Barring a few key flashbacks (well, “key” in the sense that they explain the titular character’s mopey persona), the story follows Herc and the gang as they are recruited by The King of Thrace, and saddled with the task of whipping his rag-tag army into shape. Thrace is under assault, or so says the monarch, played as a hammy spitfire by the ubiquitous John Hurt, and only the Son of Zeus has the gravitas to turn these ordinary men into extraordinary heroes.

In looking at the finished project, it is difficult to discern just what initially drew in Johnson. One of the central problems with the film is that Ratner, along with screenwriters Evan Spiliotopoulos and Ryan Condal, appear to have been incapable of crafting an engaging dramatic conflict. Even worse are the characters that compose Herc’s crew, whose interactions feel laborious and unsubstantial. For example, the beady-eyed and perennially underused Rufus Sewell shows up as Autolycus, a master knife-thrower and professional gold hound. The actor’s skill is basically wasted here, as the filmmakers relegate his character to a purely utilitarian, two-dimensional level, which successfully diffuses the drama from any of the character’s few significant scenes.

Poor saps like Sewell, or marginalized thesps like Ian McShane (who provides a moment or two of desperately needed comedic relief as Herc’s clairvoyant compatriot) have plum parts in comparison to the film’s women. It’s not necessarily surprising that Ratner’s Hercules is a boy’s club. Oh, there’s the requisite figure of “female empowerment” on display, played with great flintiness by Ingrid Bolsø Berdal. Yet, she is still restricted to the margins, rendered basically silent by the script, and wears a head-scratching, midriff-bearing outfit, despite living a life of eternal warfare. Still, compared to how Ratner and co. characterize Herc’s wife and mother (who appear in brief flashbacks) this character feels like a feminist icon. Both of those women are mute, and positioned in such an objectifying light that it is almost insulting  to anyone over the age of 13.

Now aesthetically the film is impressive enough, although there are occasional touches of laziness. This uneven quality is found in the very first scene, where two digital snakes appear that have all the authenticity of a PS2 graphic. Similarly, basic attributes of professional filmmaking seem to have been treated in a devil-may-care fashion. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the perpetually fluctuating size of the Thracian army, whose ranks appear rather thin initially before growing exponentially a few scenes later.

Of course, perhaps all of this is irrelevant, as the film’s true focal point is the body of Johnson, which is its most impressive special effect. Unfortunately, the same thing can’t be said for his performance. While the actor’s work is appropriate considering the dour nature of the film’s script, he just isn’t that fun to watch. The film harnesses none of the star’s seemingly preternatural charm. It also doesn’t commit to a tone in regards to its presentation of the beefcake, suggesting that Hercules is merely a good fighter with great PR in one scene, but then showing him tossing a horse in the next (which is admittedly awesome). These failings in regards to its titular character prevent the story from being either a fun, goofy romp or an effective exploration of mythmaking. It’s an awkward, middle-of-the-road take on the character, where neither the man or the legend feel sufficient.

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