Brett Ratner's "Hercules" Is Improbable Fun

In pairing one of Hollywood’s most likable action heroes – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – with one of its most reviled filmmakers – Brett Ratner – Paramount has shrewdly constructed a team to repurpose a literally ancient, well-tread yarn into a potential franchise. While Johnson’s charisma is probably overstated, Ratner’s talents are regularly undersold. His original “Rush Hour” remains an ideal buddy cop flick, and his poorly received “X-Men” film wasn’t the creative disaster many proclaimed it to be. Here, they join forces to elevate what should have been dull, uninspired action fare into something vaguely entertaining and, surprisingly, not entirely mindless.

Johnson plays the titular hero as a walking work of art, body portioned by bulbous veins that protrude from an impossibly chiseled physique. That the star is the physical embodiment of a half-man, half-deity certainly works in the film’s favor, lending credence to its central premise – is he or isn’t he a god? It’s that angle that allows the screenplay – based on a comic book, of course – to subvert expectations, making the story an apt parable for the Hollywood public relations machine.

That’s right, “Hercules” is a 90-minute metaphor for modern day mythmaking, its hero replete with a veritable entourage, including a hypeman who shouts stories of his boss’ glories to all within earshot. It’s an unlikely stage for Ratner to let his rap video roots shine through, but few filmmakers are as primed to tackle a narrative that’s built on braggadocio. Similar ground was tread in Disney’s animated take on the hero – easily the better film of the two – but here it’s all the more amusing in that the story’s audience-aimed eye winks are delivered by flesh-and-blood actors.

Ian McShane plays the film’s most deliciously realized character, getting a reasonable chunk of screen time as Hercules’ incompetent soothsayer, awaiting a hero’s death that never seems to come. John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, and Joseph Fiennes further make up the pic’s surplus of character acting talent. Predictably, female roles are in short supply and none of them are substantial, limiting the pic’s ability to say anything meaningful about its hero – his dead wife is a mere plot device. But Ratner isn’t known for strong female characters, and action pics starring wrestling stars demand being graded on a curve when it comes to gender politics.

The action scenes are crisply shot and choreographed, but so determinedly violent that Ratner has no choice but to either cut away too quickly or go ludicrously short on blood. As one character mows down baddies with a pair of elongated, chariot-mounted blades, bodies inexplicably fall away, dead, as though nicked by a razor blade. It’s a technique that will disappoint the most ardent action fans, but it adds to the pic’s hilarity factor, giving its action sequences a perverse, Ed Wood-style bent.

Johnson makes a major miscalculation in underplaying his role, shorting viewers on his winning smile and heightened dialogue delivery. Consequently, the film never quite takes off. But the cast around him is engaged and the story is multi-layered, reducing the actor’s required contributions to mere physicality. And as an action hero, he can’t help but deliver. He’s a hulk of a man, making inane feats like horse-throwing seem entirely plausible, and making the notion that he is, in fact, half-god wholly understandable.

Though the film is slight, its pleasures are definite, and for the right audience it’ll play like a greatest hits of sweat-drenched, sword-slinging machismo. And its commentary on the meaning of celebrity should make it palatable for more demanding audiences, making it an unlikely pseudo-success story in a summer short on winners. Whether it’s any good is another debate entirely, but for an escape on an especially humid summer day, it’ll do. Low expectations have become Brett Ratner’s best friend, so in making fare as competent as “Hercules,” he could, ironically, become his own worst enemy.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (OK)

Release Date: July 25, 2014
Studio: MGM, Paramount Pictures
Director: Brett Ratner
Screenwriter: Ryan Condal, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan, John Hurt, Rebecca Ferguson, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Aksel Hennie, Reece Ritchie
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity)