There aren’t many things less likely to inspire passion than the words “directed by Brett Ratner.” Say what you want about crowd pleasing blockbuster factories like Michael Bay, Zack Snyder or Justin Lin, but at least their work has a clearly defined style and inspires debate. Not Brett Ratner. Renowned as a workmanlike director, his main claim to fame is his ability to bring a project in on time and under budget. So the prospect of a new addition to the Ratner filmography wasn’t exactly setting my world on fire. Adding an additional note of sourness to proceedings is the widely publicized artist-led boycott of the film on the basis that the studio has bilked the late Steve Moore, (author of the comic books that this version of Hercules is based on), out of every penny he was due through sneaky contractual finagling.
Determined to stay optimistic, I reassured myself that any film with Dwayne Johnson in it can’t be all bad. After all, the man oozes charisma from every pore in his grotesquely over-muscled body. He can say more with a furrowing of his iconic brow than most actors can in a ten minute monologue. Ratner or no Ratner, just how bad can 90-odd minutes of Johnson as Hercules bashing mythological monsters be?
As it turns out, pretty bad. The concept behind the film is that this is the “real” story of Hercules. Here, he’s emphatically not the invincible half-god bastard son of Zeus, he’s just some dude. What this means is (save for brief dream sequences) no monsters, no vengeful gods, no immortality and, to be frank, not a huge amount of fun, either. What this all adds up to is ‘yer standard swords and sandals battle flick, just the latest in a long line of films of variable quality that includes the recent Pompeii, 2004’s King Arthur and the grandaddy of the modern dusty historical epic, Gladiator.
This Hercules is a mercenary for hire, trotting about ancient Greece fighting baddies with a motley bunch of allies cut from some pretty cliched cloth. There’s Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the rogue; Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), the monk; Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), the sexy archer; Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), the barbarian and Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), the bard. It turns out that bashing heads in with a big spiky club is a lot easier when people think you’re an invulnerable superman, so the crew plays up Hercules’ feats as much as they can – making him into the classical world’s equivalent of Chuck Norris.
Then along comes the King of Thrace (John Hurt) with a proposition. Train up an army to wipe out the village burning bastards that are terrorizing his countryside and he’ll pay Hercules his weight in gold. Given Johnson’s immense size, this is evidently a great deal. The rest of the film is a mixture of training montages, antiseptic battle sequences and a topless Dwayne Johnson lifting very heavy objects, while screaming at the top of his lungs.
That last one is easily the best thing about the film, which to its credit keeps finding bigger and bigger things for Hercules to toss about. To give a flavour of what’s to come, one of the smaller things he hurls across the frame is a horse. Unfortunately, these interesting moments are few and far between, and it soon transpires that the true labour of Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules isn’t capturing the Cretan Bull, stealing the apples of Hesperides or slaying the Stymphalian birds – it’s finding a single iota of personality or character in this dead-end, dog-tired excuse for a film.
All credit to Johnson, as he tries his best, furiously scrabbling away in the middle of all the mediocrity to find some fragment of personality to pin his character on. But you can only polish a turd so much and, mired in a script designed for an actor to turn up, flex his muscles a bit, club a few dudes and go home, his Hercules ends up a one-note beefcake with nothing going on under the hood.
Honestly, you end up feeling a little sorry for Johnson. He obviously has it in him to play a classical superhero, but Ratner’s film is sadistic in the way it strips away damn near everything interesting about the legend of Hercules. For example, early in the film characters talk in hushed tones about an army of centaurs and demons. Soldier mooks glance at each other nervously and even Hercules’ crew look a little disconcerted at the idea of real monsters. We finally glimpse them on the battlefield and for a few brief moments we perk up, as it looks like we might actually see some sort of hardcore battlin’ half horse half man monster. Then, as if poking fun at the audience’s incredulity, they turn out to be…. dudes on horses. Woop.
Maybe it’s just me, but stripping out everything fantastic from Hercules is wilfully missing the point. Ancient Greek mythology is crammed to the rafters with the most bonkers things you can imagine – a fever dream of monsters that’d make Lovecraft blush, cannibal gods, genital mutilation and a thousand other freaky tales. In one story, Zeus turns into a swan and starts getting in on with some sexy Greek girl! Granted, divine swan-on-girl bestiality probably isn’t going pack out multiplexes, but hell, it’d at least be better than Brett Ratner’s Hercules.
Hercules is a creaky bit of cheap-looking, inconsequential fluff that squanders any potential and contains not a jot of passion, imagination or creativity. So, in summary, it's a Brett Ratner film.