Originality in any form is not something you’re going to find in Brett Ratner‘s Hercules. Take any PG-13 sword and sandal film you’ve seen lately — glossy and gritty, drenched in black blood — and add touches of Gladiator and Braveheart and you have this supposed “new” tale of the son of Zeus, or, as the film tells us… like… the real Zeus. You know, the Greek God and stuff? You know the one… right? Yeah, we get it!
The easiest comparison is to say Ratner has “updated” Hercules in the same way Marcus Nispel updated Conan, though this film does seem better than that one if only because it’s shorter. The Nispel comparison seems apt, though, if you consider the visual palette Ratner is working with and the overall blunt force numbness of the plot.
Adapted from Radical Studios’ graphic novel “Hercules: The Thracian Wars”, Hercules finds our titular hero (Dwayne Johnson) an outcast after he’s believed to have killed his wife and children, working as a mercenary for gold alongside a group of fellow warriors. These warriors work almost in the shadows, killing under Hercules’ name, further building his myth as an indestructible demigod when in fact he is just a mere mortal… or is he? Oh, the mystery…
Commissioned by the King of Thrace (John Hurt) to help him save his lands from a supposed group of rebels led by the tyrannical warlord Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann), Hercules may have found the final job that will allow him to retire on the shores of the Black Sea. He’s such a dreamer.
Preening and posing, arms flexed, veins huge, Johnson does little more than yell and throw punches, at least when he’s not locked in quiet conversation with the king’s daughter (Rebecca Ferguson) whose name escapes me, much like the names of everyone in this movie outside of Hercules and the the king’s daughter’s young son, Arius (Isaac Andrews). In fact, let’s see if we can correct that now as I remember the characters more for the actors that played them rather than their character’s actual name. It will be a learning process for all of us and I must confess, I have to use the press notes…
Ian McShane plays a soothsayer named Amphiaraus who eventually takes over narrating the story of Hercules from Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), Hercules’ cousin and marketing manager. Rufus Sewell plays Autolycus whose main talent seems to be sarcasm and knife throwing while Ingrid BolsÃ¸ Berdal takes on the role of Atalanta, who is essentially this movie’s version of Legolas as she has a quiver filled with endless arrows. Oh, and Aksel Hennie plays the mute Tydeus, whom Hercules saved as a young child. He now grunts like a dog in his sleep and stares wildly. This band of misfits and outcasts have formed a “family” and they go around all of Greece, killing for money at Hercules’ side.
If anything this movie seems like a perfect example of how to waste $100 million. Expensive CG inserts populate flashbacks and establishing shots while much of the film is rather practical. Had they had enough story to occupy a feature film they probably could have saved money by not filming those sequences at all, but that would have meant we’d be looking at something like an hour-long feature film and that’s just not going to cut it.
At 98 minutes Hercules doesn’t entirely drain you, but the familiarity with previous disposable films of its sort — Pathfinder is another that comes to mind — doesn’t make it any more compelling. Sewell does add a mild level of entertainment with his delivery alone and I rarely find McShane intolerable (and I didn’t here either), but I’m quite tired of seeing him play the same sort of character over and over again.
What I found most interesting was the fact this is a Brett Ratner film. Despite having a flurry of recognizable movies under his belt — the Rush Hour films, X-Men: The Last Stand and Red Dragon — how many are memorable for their quality? How many feature a directorial stamp that makes you say, “Oh, I’ve got to see the next Brett Ratner film!”? Can you even spot a Ratner film had you not known he directed it?
To look at this movie you could guess it was made by any director-for-hire. Nothing stands out as unique or remotely inventive. I can just imagine their time on set, “Okay, time for the big heroic speech!” and “Let’s set up the big epic battle sequence!” I don’t know how much screenwriters Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos were paid, but their script isn’t worth the price of the napkin they wrote it on.
Hercules stands as an example of the risk today’s studios are willing to make. Spending $100 million on a piece of junk just because they expect the 3D and IMAX ticket pricing and international box office sales to bring in the money, mostly on the back of Dwayne Johnson who’s seen as something of an international movie star on the rise thanks, in large part, to the Fast and Furious and G.I. Joe franchises. That theory will be put to the test with this one as I expect it to incur a swift death at the domestic box office, hoping to end in the black thanks to foreign dollars. We’ll see.