One could be forgiven for being skeptical that a Hercules movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and directed by Brett “Rush Hour Trilogy” Ratner might have a brain in its head, but it actually does. We’re not talking Snowpiercer levels of intelligence, but it’s far less aggressively stupid than, say, Transformers: Age of Extinction, or Renny Harlin’s recent megaflop The Legend of Hercules.
Ratner’s Hercules avoids many of the mistakes of Harlin’s picture, though The Legend of Hercules would have been a more accurate title for Ratner’s movie, which explores how the burden of being so very legendary weighs on Hercules (Johnson).
Known for having completed most of his famous labors and achieving a level of adulation that he doesn’t necessarily want, Hercules and a ragtag group of fellow warriors are summoned to Thrace by Lord Cotys (John Hurt), who promises to pay them Hercules‘ considerable weight in gold if they’ll build and train an army to defeat the warlord Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann).
The story is fairly straightforward, and, more importantly, so is much of the action. The film’s centerpiece is a battle between the Hercules-led Thracian army and hundreds of tattooed, axe-wielding C.H.U.D.s, and it’s downright refreshing how classically it’s shot.
Unlike Harlin’s Hercules film (and many other directors’ non-Hercules fantasy pictures in recent years), there’s no post-300 speed-up/slow-down nonsense. If anything, Ratner seems more inspired by the relative naturalism of Game of Thrones, and while there’s certainly plenty of CGI augmentation, this particular battle scene takes place in broad daylight and appears to have been shot on location rather than in a studio in front of a green screen.
The sense that actual humans are involved in an actual place confers a sense of urgency that pixels just don’t have, and that includes the film’s opening retellings of Hercules‘s famous tussles against various monsters, as well as the CGI-heavy climax. But that middle battle is surprisingly powerful in its earthy messiness, give or take all the edits and lack of blood to get a PG-13.
It also helps that Hercules has a strong lead in Johnson. Not just physically strong, but with all apologies to Steve Reeves, Lou Ferrigno, and Ryan Gosling, he’s by far the best actor to ever play this role.
That’s not damning with faint praise, either. Johnson is genuinely talented. He’s often the best thing in bad movies, and Ratner’s Hercules is, at the very least, pretty good. In addition to all the yelling and straining and punching of things, which come with the territory, the movie gives Johnson a lot to do emotionally in the quieter scenes, and he can communicate a great deal with those big eyes of his.
The picture also raises a question that most mythology-based action movies won’t go near, because nobody likes a buzzkill: What if the myths are just that?
Hanging over the picture is not only the question of whether Hercules is, in fact, the son of Zeus (a Zeus who never manifests himself in the film’s present day, nor do any of the other gods or supernatural beings) but also the issue of whether Hercules really did slay the Lernaean Hydra or the Nemean lion or any of the other feats of badassery for which the masses adore him. (Though he did turn the lion’s head, or at least a lion’s head, into what may be history’s first kitty hoodie.)
Brett Ratner is not John Ford, and Hercules is not The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but for a big, dumb late-summer action movie starring a former professional wrestler as a mythological strongman, it’s refreshingly down to earth, and thoughtful about the tension between fact and legend.