Let’s get one thing straight from the off – Dwayne Johnson is great. This isn’t a “DragonDark thinks Dwayne Johnson is great” state of affairs; it’s not an attempt of being oh-so ironic and hip, declaring the musclebound lunk to be “so bad he’s good”; it’s not even a vague and contrived attempt to segue into an awkward joke about fanny packs. It’s simply a statement of fact – the man we once called The Rock is brilliant and, regardless of the quality of some of the movies that bear his name (we’re looking at you, GI Joe: Retaliation), his performances rarely fail to light up our screens.
Brett Ratner isn’t great … but he’s a damn sight better than he’s given credit for, despite being dismissed as a hack by at least one leading critic and crucified by genre fans for his work on X-Men: The Last Stand. Even Google seems to have it in for him – type in his name and instead of the standard Brett Ratner Feet, the condemnatory search engine throws up Brett Ratner Douche as a suggestion. Call us big softies, but we’re keen to cut the guy a break – by the time he stepped into Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn’s sizable shoes on The Last Stand he’d inherited a project with more problems than Jay-Z on a bad day, and found himself staring down the barrel of studio interference. The fact that he turned the movie in (some might say phoned it in, granted) on-time and on-budget speaks to his skilled – if unspectacular – hands.
So what do you get when you throw Brett Ratner and Dwayne Johnson together for a comic book adaptation of the fabled Greek demigod, other than an overwhelming urge to finally make use of the gym membership you signed up for after watching 300? A solid and entertaining 98 minute time-waster perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon, that’s what.
Hercules takes its cue from the Radical Publishing series Hercules: The Thracian Wars, penned by the late Steve Moore. Focussing on the man behind the myth, this is an entirely different spin to Marvel’s Prince of Power incarnation of the alleged son of Zeus; fantastical elements are minimised, with Herc’s legendary labours reduced to the stuff of fable and flashback. This Hercules is a broken man, shattered by personal tragedy and left to wander the Greek landscape seeking his fortunate as a mercenary, and convincing sceptical punters that it is possible to look intimidating in a skirt and sandals by telling tall tales about his previous exploits. Joined by a band of colleagues that resemble a mythological Justice League – comprising of soothsayers, sharp-shooters, soldiers, smugglers and story-spinners – our wrasslin’ champion doesn’t make much encouragement to go to war, clubbing enemies, power-slamming horses and punching wolves in the jaw. Don’t panic though –occasionally ropey CGI ensures we’re quite confident that no animals were harmed during the making of this picture.
It’s safe to say that Hercules is nobody’s idea of a particularly good film, but that takes nothing away from how jolly enjoyable it is. In many respects it’s reminiscent of the simpler times of the 1990s, thanks to a screenplay that constantly teeters on the brink of hokeyness and a supporting cast of scenery-chewing Brits that are clearly having a lovely time slumming it. As much as we love Johnson – and Hercules is undoubtedly his movie – a great deal of joy comes from the R-rolling campery of his classically-trained co-stars. John Hurt gives great John Hurt as leader of Thrace Lord Cotys, while Peter Mullan is delightfully gruff and disagreeable as his militaristic right-hand man and Joseph Fiennes simpers away as middling monarch Eurystheus. As Herc’s companions in arms, Ian McShane steals every scene he appears in as prophetic warrior Amphiaraus, Rufus Sewell has a whale of a time hogging most of the best one-liners as noble thief Autolycus, and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal blends beauty with bad-assery in a way not seen since Legolas as archer Atalanta.
A movie of this ilk can only sail so far on performances though, as the screenplay is far from the selling point. Thankfully the spectacle lives up to the billing, with battle scenes that leave us bruised just by watching – clubs, spears, swords and fists swing, leaving a pleasantly adrenaline-pumping swath of 12A-rated carnage in their wake, and ensuring that inevitable comparisons to 2010’s Clash of the Titans firmly favour Ratner’s romp every time. Unfortunately, Hercules suffers a similar detriment to Louis Leterrier’s folly with its 3D post-conversion, which while nowhere as shoddy (and offering some crowd-pleasing moments of spears and arrows flying out of the screen – especially in a lovely end credits sequence), seriously detracts from the overall experience.
Hercules is also a light movie, both in terms of tone and contrast. The chirpy storytelling makes for an appealing break from all the post-Dark Knight doom and gloom that has come to define popcorn-fodder in recent years (though don’t panic, Herc’s mission is still defined a thirst for vengeance, and Johnson has plenty of opportunities to be a cold, hard bastard). The darkening of the screen throughout the sun-kissed battle scenes, however, is even more infuriating than usual – from what we could make out the movie looked gorgeous, but peering through two layers of dimming filters diminished the impact hugely, occasionally leaving DragonDark squinting to make out anything at all during the handful of night-set scenes. We strongly recommend a 2D screening if you can find one.
Recommend a viewing we do, however, as Hercules is a thoroughly enjoyable throwback epic that washes away the disappointing taste of Immortals and Wrath of the Titans. It’s far from vintage filmmaking, but in a summer silly season that hasn’t captured our imaginations in the way that we may have hoped, Ratner can hold his head up high. Heck, he might even have earned a shot at helming X-Men: Apocalypse…