Take away all that is wondrous and mythic about the legend of Hercules, place him and a merry band of mercenaries in a dull land with bad lighting and disparate accents, throw in some regal betrayal, and you’ve Brett Ratner’s mirthless new offering.
Yes, for reasons passing understanding, this vision of the Greek mythological figure that fought monsters, engaged with Gods, and possessed massive strength does away with all the fun. Instead of Hercules battling vicious behemoths as he is shown doing for but 60 seconds in the opening, he fights men with swords and clubs for money.
That opening sequence, which is the only entertaining part, is not real life – it’s a tale fabricated by Hercules’ nephew, the weakling storytelling part of his group of paid muscle. In this world, which unfortunately I suppose is closer to real life that it is to the exciting fiction, Hercules is simply potent, and apparently purporting exaggerated stories and telling people he is the son of Zeus helps him win battles.
Thus, the result is a more a classic than a myth, following Hercules (a muscled and mostly charmless Dwayne Johnson) as double-crossed hero turned spurned mercenary as he takes on a job that is more than it seems from a aging King (John Hurt). His crew includes a comical seer in Ian McShane, a maniacal warrior, a tempered and suave fighter, and Amazon archer Atalanta as the token tough woman.
With spurts of humour and far too much gravity, Hercules strives to hammer home the point that the man is more powerful and indeed more interesting than the myth. In fact, throughout the film, that which is fictitious and fabulous is teased, only to be debunked as tricks of the mind.
When it looks like our heroes will battle centaurs (at last!), the half-horse, half-man silhouettes reveal themselves as simple equine-seated warriors.
It’s distracts and confounds, as Ratner and writers Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos go out of their way to make sure we the audience know we aren’t getting any mysticism and intrigue.
Instead, Hercules the character is made boring and incidental. We are informed that the proceedings take place after Hercules’ famous 12 labors (famous in part because they were totally awesome), and so we get battles among humans instead of demigod versus beast. What’s more, we’re told that those 12 labors were probably exaggerated, so stop enjoying the lies basically.
In that, Hercules is a failure of a movie-making. It strips away the magic and fascination that the storied hero carries with him, opting for the ordinary and trivial. Summoning all his strength during a climatic sequence, questioned and motivated by a caged comrade, our hero breaks free screaming, “I am Hercules!” So what?