Sometimes as a movie goer, you’ve just got to stop thinking and enjoy the silly things. In this case, we have a film where an even more massive than usual Dwayne Johnson spends a solid majority of the time swinging a large club at people, sending them flying into the distance. If you can’t sit back and watch that with a big smile on your face, then you probably don’t have a great deal of fun in this life to begin with.
This version of Hercules finds the son of Zeus (Dwayne Johnson) long after his twelve labors have been completed. Following the murder of his family, which many people believe to be done by his hand, he and his group of friends have become mercenaries for hire. For their latest mission, they are enlisted by King Cotys (John Hurt) to defend the city of Thrace against a rouge army hell bent on conquering a series of Greek cities. Hercules reluctantly accepts, and takes it upon himself to start training Thrace’s weak army of farmers, even if that requires exaggerating his own conquests in order to give the men something bigger to rally behind.
I have to say, for a trashy sword and sandal movie, this story is much sharper than it could have been. The screenplay by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos is refreshingly sharp and full of very welcome humor. The typically stiff, exposition filled dialogue of most films of this ilk is replaced here by a great deal of banter and camaraderie between the main characters. This is particularly evident in Hercules’ band of warriors. What could have been a group of inter-changeable talking heads actually becomes one of the strongest aspects of the story. Each character is memorable, fleshed out to a certain extent, and given at least a couple moments to be very human and funny. This is particularly true of Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) a fortune teller obsessed with his own demise, an obsession which turns into one of the film’s best running gags.
The story itself also has a great deal of cool moving parts. In particular, the way they ground the legend of Hercules in at least some form of realism by using his stories as a somewhat fabricated means to an end is very dynamic, and gives the character a little bit more dimension than he would otherwise. Don’t worry, this is still the same mountainously strong Hercules that you expect, he just has a little more human vulnerability to make the stakes just a little higher. There’s also a genuinely surprising plot shift about midway through that only increases the conflict going into a pretty spectacular final act.
Even with all of these working elements, this film would have fallen flat on it’s face if it didn’t have a Hercules that could be completely bought into. Fortunately, Dwayne Johnson is more than up to this task. He brings a physicality to this role that simply could not be matched by any other actor working today. He’s so built here, he looks like he could take on the Hulk in a fistfight. When he’s throwing men off of horses, and pushing pillars down with his bare hands, we completely buy into it, because he actually seems like someone who could do that without the aid of a computer or a stuntman. Beyond that, he’s endlessly watchable as an actor, with a charming charisma perfect for a larger than life hero. It’s no wonder that DC wants him to play Shazam (or whatever character he ends up as), because he truly is a real life superhuman.
The action sequences are all lots of fun. Director Brett Ratner has heavily improved in this department over the years, and here he delivers his most deliciously silly work to date. I could watch Johnson throw people into walls and hit them with his club all day, and the film knows it. While never failing to show just how powerful Hercules is, there’s also a great deal of fun action moments for the other characters. While it’s certainly a shame Ratner wasn’t allowed to go for the R rating by showing a ton of gore, they push the PG-13 as far as it will go, making the violence feel as brutal as possible The whole film is infused with the spirit of the fun adventure movies of the days of old, and this is particularly evident in these scenes.
There’s actually very little to complain about here, merely nitpicks really. Every so often, the structure can feel just a little repetitive. There’s talking/training, then a big battle where two big groups run at each other, then talking and training, then another big battle where two big groups run at each other. Also, while certainly not terrible, the CGI on a couple of the creatures could have been touched up a little bit. There’s definitely an element of fakeness to some of them. However, when Hercules is literally tackling a lion, you won’t be complaining.
Hercules is a film that knows exactly what it is, and delivers exactly that in spades. In fact, it even goes a little above in beyond by adding a touch of narrative depth and a whole ton of sharp writing. Johnson more than carries things on his bulky shoulders, further cementing himself as one of the best action stars we have working today. It never exactly crosses the threshold into being a great film, but it’s about as good as a trashy summer film like this can be. It’s definitely one of the more entertaining films of the summer.