Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hercules, Inc: Brett Ratner’s Hercules

The cinematic summer of 2014 continues to surprise me. I signed up to review a bushel of blockbuster chaff, expecting little more than the lowest-common-denominator dreck that usually fills theatres during these mid-year months. But so far, there’s been nothing but wheat: X-Men was great, Edge of Tomorrow became a sleeper hit, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes wasn’t half as silly as its title. Even Hercules, directed by Brett Ratner (of Rush Hour and Red Dragon fame), is a fun, if sometimes over-serious film. I’m almost tempted to say that it looks as though Hollywood is prioritizing visual, narrative, and emotional coherence in order to attract moviegoers! What a novel concept. Granted, I haven’t seen Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles yet – I don’t want to speak too soon.

Against many odds – a well-worn subject, a tired genre, and an erratic director, to name a few – Hercules actually presents a pretty interesting story concept, providing a more cynical take on the idea of “living legends” by showing us a mere mortal (and by "mere", I mean so strong he can wield a club that's nearly the same size as he is) whose famous Labours are actually the result of careful teamwork between the prodigiously muscled hero himself (played by Dwayne Johnson) and his ragtag team of mercenary buddies. In this version of Ancient Greece, centaurs are just men on horseback, gods are just statues, and although mighty Hercules is strong enough to fell five men with a single blow, he’s not really a demigod. This information is best kept under wraps, however, because the more that the people of Greece believe in the myth spun by Herc’s merry band of misfits, the more mercenary contracts will come their way. To these characters, “Hercules” is a carefully crafted brand, and as much time and effort in the film is given over to maintaining this illusion as to the necessary hacking and slashing. This is a fun and refreshing spin on what might otherwise have been an incredibly derivative swords-and-sandals feature, and allows the supporting cast a chance to shine. Hercules’ team – a cynical knifemaster (Rufus Sewell), a ferocious Amazonian archer (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), a feral, silent barbarian (Askell Hennie), a perpetually-amused wise man (Ian McShane), and the Athenian version of a PR rep, Hercules’ runty nephew and chief storyteller (Reece Ritchie) – provide the film’s best moments with their snatches of self-aware banter. They’re more than one-note, but not by much – but at least they're characterized at all.

Dwayne Johnson (and his club) in Hercules
As for the lead himself, let’s not beat around the bush: Dwayne Johnson is carefully positioning himself as the modern version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s decidedly less camp, but occupies the same space in our film lexicon (and fulfills the same power fantasy role for nerds like me and provides the same beefcake buffet for frustrated housewives everywhere). Now, if he'd only find a role that suits him as well as the Terminator suited Arnold – maybe some experimentation with low-budget science fiction is the answer? But try as he might – and Johnson certainly tries, for which he can only be congratulated – he’ll never hold a candle to Arnie. The only proof you need that Schwarzenegger was and forever will be King of Shlock Action is to compare the one-liners: Arnold's were instantly and effortlessly classic (“I’ll be back”, “Get to tha choppa”, etc), and Johnson's are rote and groan-worthy (“Fucking centaurs”, “I AM HERCULES!”, etc). Johnson is likeable, but there’s something missing, some magic ingredient that only Arnold possesses, and I’ve figured out what it is. It’s the accent. I believe that the seed of Schwarzenegger’s charm lies within his godawful line delivery, which is almost entirely due to his ESL difficulties (especially in his earlier film career – including his film debut as, coincidentally, Hercules in 1969’s cringe-inducing Hercules in New York). It made his roles hilarious and memorable, and became a sort of secret weapon against criticism. Ask yourself: can you, or anyone you know, do a Dwayne Johnson impersonation? (And no, yelling “If ya smell what the Rock is cookin’” doesn’t count.) Didn’t think so. And therein lies the problem with the otherwise eminently capable Johnson, whose absurdly massive physique outshines his own screen presence here (there was a moment in which Hercules reclines on a cot after receiving medical care – the rank and file mustn’t see the demigod bleed, after all – and I swear the rickety bed was about to collapse under his bronzed bulk. The man looks as though he weighs as much as a car).

We’re treated to the token stable of British actors who don't mind slumming it in forgettable genre pictures: Rufus Sewell, here playing a more sympathetic role than he’s known for as Hercules’ wisecracking knife man; Joseph Fiennes in a requisite appearance as the Athenian king (at least one of the Fiennes brothers is always popping up in this sort of film); Ian McShane as the seer who does more than simply spout mystic babble; and science fiction stalwart John Hurt, who elevates every “wizened, creaky-voiced patriarch” role he takes on. Thankfully, none among this storied company are underused, especially McShane, whose winking performance is among the film’s more well-constructed and memorable elements.

Ian McShane in Hercules
The battle scenes are energetic and mostly intelligible, but Ratner doesn’t do anything particularly special with them (apart from making us feel every single bone-crunching impact of Hercules’ massive club). The flighty tone established by the character dialogue is mostly abandoned during the fighting, making the backdrop of the Thracian War as dismally violent as a World War II picture. It doesn’t help that the CGI is flat and unconvincing – while the production value is generally good (most costumes and sets feel tangibly dirty), there’s no dramatic oomph when Hercules faces off against yet another poorly-rendered beast. (I pine for the production style of Terry Gilliam, who invests every frame of his films with mist and smoke and mud and moisture, and the Jim Henson Studio, whose puppet-creatures were more believable than any CGI monstrosity.) Personally, I could have done with less shouting and slashing, and more development into the supporting characters and how they came from far-flung places to end up as teammates to a literal living legend.

I don't want to give the impression that this is an excellent movie. A combination of low expectations and mild genre subversion combined to make Hercules an experience that's as surprisingly decent as it is forgettable. I really wanted to call this review “The Erymanthian Bore”, but if you’re in the mood for some good old-fashioned Greek battle fun you’ll get exactly what you’re expecting. Frankly, if this is the worst that the summer movie season has to offer, then we don't know just how spoiled we are.
Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto. 

No comments:

Post a Comment