Hercules (★★½)

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herculesSword and sandals films conjure up images of the atrocious double whammy of Wrath of the Titans and Immortals, add director Brett Ratner’s name to the credits and you have the makings of a Herculean disaster (see what I did there?). Color me so surprised I’ve turned cross-eyed because if you have to watch one Hercules movie this year – and we’ve got two now – make it this one! This is the big, dumb action movie of the summer and if you’re looking for entertainment, pure and simple, you can’t do better than this. I actually hated myself upon leaving the theater for how much I enjoyed myself watching this.

Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is a mercenary for hire coping with the loss of his wife and children. When he and his team end up in Thrace, Lord Cotys (John Hurt), impressed with the myths associated with Hercules, asks for his help to save the town from an invading army. Unfortunately, there might be more to the story than Hercules realizes.

Grecian epics seem so terrified of offending their audiences, never mentioning the gods or fearing they’re overly mystical, that they remove the history and entertainment which makes them fun to watch. Audiences want to be transported to a world removed from our own, and if it’s got a big muscle-bound dude at the helm, all the better. Hercules walks the fine line between appreciating its source material but upping the action for modern audiences. There’s an attempt to tell a deeper story with the examination of the legend, and while that’s openly declared to us in the narration, it’s pulled off better when we realize Hercules plays off his own hype, helped by his PR man/Paul Bettany in a Knight’s Tale/nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). The ambiguity of whether Hercules is truly born of the gods is never overtly stated, and it emphasizes that sometimes myth is better than reality.

Turning this into a mindless action epic is achievable, and a portion of audiences will see it as such, and that’s okay. For all the characters’ talk of whether Hercules is as powerful as he claims and what that means to the story, there are just as many battle formations, horse thrown through the air, and a giant statue of Hera toppled off its pedestal.  And yet, there’s nothing particularly campy about Hercules; it isn’t as over-the-top as something like 300, with Snyder’s obsession with oiled abs and slow-motion. Johnson keeps his shirt on for much of the movie and the slow-motion is sparse outside of a few moments in the battle scenes. The only “inspiration” we see is taken from Gladiator, unsurprising since it is the costume drama blueprint for imitators like this. So don’t be surprised when King Eurystheus (a blonde bewigged Joseph Fiennes) tells Hercules of the horrors committed on his wife and child – although far less horrific than in Ridley Scott’s epic – or a character says “Unleash [something].”

The closest comparison, and by close I mean worlds apart, I got with Hercules was a 1970s revenge tale, a PG-13 Death Wish. (Speaking of, this movie deserved to be R-rated. There’s a lot of bloodless impaling and some veiled nipples. Expect an “unrated” cut in the future.) Hercules is a man without a home; his friends are the closest thing to his family. He’d probably be competing with Conan the Barbarian if this was the same universe. You almost wish the script and direction would have gone deeper towards turning this into a sword and sandals revenge thriller, probably another reason a harsher rating is warranted. Johnson’s Hercules is buff and tough, but he gets a few moments of sensitivity with our resident future Queen (Rebecca Ferguson) and her young son. His strengths are playing off the warriors who travel with him, a merry band who I’d watch in a movie of their own.

Ian McShane and Ingrid Bolso Berdal steal the scenes they’re in as a man whose seen his death…he just doesn’t know when it is, and an Amazonian warrior, respectively. McShane is hilarious in the sequences where he prepares for death, only to miss out. He and Crispin Glover’s character from Hot Tub Time Machine have a lot in common. The best of the lot is Norwegian actress Berdal as Atalanta. Brett Ratner isn’t the guy I’d expect a strong female character from (um, X3) but the script imbues Atalanta with power and determination. She’s just one of the guys, sure – the movie has two quips about her not being considered a woman to the group – but she never once needs saving and saving the guys is a regular occurence! Give this lady an action franchise (but not something like a Xena reboot)! We also aren’t forced to choke down a love story for our hero. For these movies women are sex objects or the prize for the great hero, but Hercules and Princess Ergenia aren’t thrust together by story’s end. For a genre inherently opposed to pushing women forward, Hercules does its best to give them the spotlight.

We do endure a fair share of lackluster characters who take audiences out of the movie. Iolaus is the Scrappy Doo of the group, a comedic Patroclus who you’re aching to see die horrendously. I can’t figure out if he’s being used as the fresh new face – possibly due to his vague resemblance to Kit Harrington – to attract teen girls, but he’s annoying as all hell. Fiennes also comes off like he’s auditioning for Tim Roth’s character in Rob Roy, an effeminate whiner whose only there as a reminder to the audience that Hercules’ family is dead.

On a technical level, the sets and locations are beautifully rendered, but the special effects are inept. The animals come off like something out of the early Harry Potter movies, Cerberus in particular. There are also some shoddy fire effects that, coupled with the 3D, stand out as ridiculous. Seeing this in 3D did nothing for me. There are a lot of gimmicky uses – spears, wood chips thrown at the audience – yet the movie all but removes the effect by the third act. 3D is mostly used for depth, but here there’s nothing special warranting the upcharge.

So much should have worked against this movie. Hercules isn’t an epic spectacle, although the budget is used to great effect, but is more an imitation of the 1980s Clash of the Titans combined with a Sly Stallone movie. There’s a definite audience for this as it’s just a mess of fun. Dwayne Johnson never condescends to the audience, despite his lack of accent or ability to come off like he’s living in the time period, but he’s helped by one of the better supporting casts for a movie in this genre. If you’ve waited for a summer action movie sans robots, this is the one. I won’t go so far as to say Brett Ratner does a good job, but the pieces come together and the acting is solid. I had a rollicking good time, and you will too!