Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) and his band of mercenaries have been summoned by Cotys, the King of Thrace (John Hurt), as he’s in a bad way and under threat from a head-chopping despot named Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). Yet Thrace has no army, and Rhesus’s extremely substantial forces won’t stop until every last Thracian neck has a blade in it or a chain around it. Is Hercules man (or demigod) enough to train an army and save Thrace from the grip of totalitarian power?
Why are we even asking – this is Hercules! Slayer of the Nemean Lion! Decapitator of the Hydra! No doubt you’ve heard of him, if not from his many tales of valor, then from the onslaught of ads that have been pimping Johnson in lionskin for weeks.
Except Hercules battles through all those labors (and all that CGI beast footage) in about two minutes in an opening montage/summary of the hero’s most famous deeds. Then, with a tasteful spear-up-the-butt joke, the film sweeps them all aside, revealing that everything we thought we knew about Hercules was just a sham. This Hercules is not a demigod; just a man with a knack for misdirection. He’ll come away the victor in a 40–0n-1 duel… with plentiful assistance from his Greek variant on the Merry Men, lurking just out of sight. He’ll slay a man with a single punch… due to the arrowhead he’s secreted away between his knuckles.
This is con man Hercules, a soldier of fortune with no noticeable godliness (a concept that comes from the comic, Steve Moore’s “Hercules: The Thracian Wars,” which Hercules is based off of). It’s a clever conceit, just one that’s wrapped in, at times, kind of a dumb movie.
For one, Hercules’s script is pieced together entirely from various action movie cliches. Herc and his mercenary troupe are one job away from retirement. Herc’s tortured past (because of course his past is tortured) comes back in nightmare form, and when it does he awakens in terror, rocketing upright while gasping into the camera. Call Hercules a hero, and he’ll assert that no, he’s not, but when an army has gathered, some unseen force propels him into a rousing pre-battle speech.
Johnson has no interest in sounding even remotely like a hero of old. He sounds no different than a modern-day Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, albeit dressed in a lion carcass. He and his various sidekicks, meanwhile, are all trying to out-banter each other, routinely demolishing any sense of historical accuracy with lines like “I’m just getting started” or “Excuse me, that was my moment.” It’s about as ancient and Greek as a trip to your local K-Mart. Out of the group, Ian McShane’s given the bulk of the comic relief, but thanks to his expert timing it ends up being far funnier than you’d expect.
Yet for all its dumbness, it’s hard not to fall for Hercules and the big lug within.
Most of that is due to the work of Johnson, who is an absolutely mammoth son of Zeus (not since Hercules in New York and its Mr. Olympia-era Arnold Schwarzenegger has the Grecian hero taken up so much of the frame). Johnson’s Herc is one part heroic earnestness (think Russell Crowe in Gladiator, whenever he was talking about his farm back home), and one part WWE swagger. The bigger the better, obviously – Johnson comes off a little wooden whenever he’s forced to downplay his Hercules-ness, but in the heat of battle, he’s the guy you’d root for, genuinely, to crush evil in between his watermelon-sized biceps.
Johnson’s backed up by director Brett Ratner and some surprisingly epic battles. Whenever Hercules starts launching people through the air (despite his status as mere mortal, Herc has the uncanny ability to toss grown men – and, at one point, a horse – a good ten feet in any direction), the film settles into an easy, yet rousing, groove. Our heroes are all designed with unique elements that stick out, making it easy for the eye to follow through quicker cuts and sprinkles of shaky-cam. Plus, Ratner never goes too long without a shot of something steady, to keep everybody grounded. For extra fun they even add in a dazzling array of neato and certainly unrealistic weapons (every item owned by Herc and his companions has at least six blades hidden inside it).
It’s as unsubtle as unsubtle could be, but hey, nobody ever said “dumb” and “fun” had to be mutually exclusive.
The Upside: Johnson knows how to swing a club (and charm an audience); Ratner knows how to make it look good; a decent amount of humor and emotion wrought from painfully oversimplified material
The Downside: Painfully oversimplified material; cheap chunks of generic action movie inserted into Grecian myth
On the Side: Comics legend Alan Moore wants you to boycott Hercules, because “The Thracian Wars” author Moore (no relation) was not paid at all when his comic was adapted to film. Moore asked not to be associated with the film, but once he died, Paramount went and stamped his name on it anyway.