Just how many bad sword and sandal movies can there be in one year? Well, let's see how Ridley Scott does with Exodus before we count.
Directed by Brett Ratner
Written by Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopolous (based on the comic, but not the one you've ever heard of, by Steve Moore)
With Dwayne Johnson (Hercules), Rufus Sewell (Autolycus), Ian McShane (Amphiaraus), Ingrid Berdal (Atalanta), Aksel Hennie (Tydeus), Recce Ritche (Iolaus), John Hurt (Lord Cotys), and Joseph Fiennes (Eurystheus)
Spoiler alert: moderate
First a confession: I do not hate Brett Ratner. This is perhaps because I've avoided the Rush Hour franchise due to my allergy to Chris Tucker (the only cure for which is The Fifth Element). But it's also because X-Men: The Last Stand, while a muddled, ungodly mess of an adaptation of The Dark Phoenix Saga, does not lack for watchability; and because The Family Man is just about as good as treacly Christmastime crap seems to be able to get in the 21st century, which isn't much of a recommendation, but there it is; and by God it's because Red Dragon is a really good movie, maybe even kind of a great movie. And, yes, it's totally better than Manhunter. It's only your Michael Mann hepcat nonsense that compels you to argue otherwise, my lovely rhetorical strawman.
Of course, none of that means Hercules is good, it just means I didn't fear its approach. In fact, I looked forward it. After all: Dwayne Johnson! Brett Ratner! The incredible Hercules! What about this did not promise sublimely stupid fun?
Well, the most important strategic decision in Hercules' campaign against fun was the decision to not look toward the classics and not-so-classics of yesteryear for inspiration. The screenwriters did not seek the essence of their tale in those somewhat raggedy-ass Italian vehicles with Steve Reeves in the 1950s, nor the psychedelic neo-peplum masterpieces with Lou Ferrigno in the 1980s. Nor did they do so in Greek religion itself. Instead of the revealed truths of the Eleusinian rite, Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopolous studied deeply the mysteries of Scooby Doo, Where Are You.
What's that you say? The trailers are chock full of semi-competent computer renderings of monstrous Hydras, raging Nemean lions, and all the rest? Well, the joke's on you, and the joke's on me, for the heads of the Hydra are but men in masks, the Nemean lion is a pelt probably bought from an Egyptian merchant, and all the rest is the invention of Hercules' press agent, whose name I've forgotten and whose own marketing ploys grow quite wearisome before the end.
To be fair, Hercules was originally subtitled The Thracian War, which is, depressingly, far more accurate.
You see, Hercules is yet another example of the regrettable trend of telling "the real story" of a famous or beloved or interesting fictional character. Thus is the towering figure of the legendary Hercules reduced to a Rock-sized human. That's pretty big, but not big enough.
It's all very annoying, too, to witness Hercules carry on as a period piece rather than as a fantasy, while it does things that suggest fiercely that the writers have never actually read a book, and may in fact dictate their screenplays to their literate friends for transcription. They move the character 900 years forward, from the Bronze Age in the decades before the Trojan War to a very specific date in the 4th century B.C.—if I correctly remember the date that flashes uselessly on the screen in Papyrus font, somewhere around the time of the Boeotian War. In case that's Greek to you, it means it's in a time when the demigod Herakles had already been written about, painted, sculpted, worshipped, and discussed for at least a millennium. Then a character shows up claiming to be the king... of Athens. If you're looking for something new this summer, there you have it, a historical error so profoundly ignorant I doubt it's ever been made by a movie in over a hundred years of cinema. And is this king a half-man, half-snake? Regretfully, I tell you that he is not.
This guy also says that Hades is where the "fun" people go, a joke that only makes sense if Greeks perceived their underworld as the exact equivalent of the Christian Hell. Even Disney's Hercules did better on this count, and in that movie the god Hades is a deliberate stand-in for Satan.
In this version of the legend, Hercules and his band of Herculoids are mercenaries who trade on Hercules' fake divine ancestry and very real martial prowess for gold. As you may notice even more quickly than I did, they are clearly patterned on the team that proved commercially successful in Thor. And don't think this isn't a cynical ploy by rival studios to preempt Marvel's own Hercules. Despite the obvious influence, though, I doubt Hercules' allies will stick to the roof of your mind.
Their names may be familiar. And they should be, as they've been stolen from all branches of Greek mythology and only applied with any thoughtfulness once: Tydeus is a Theban. This makes sense in such a very minimal way I suspect it's an accident. But then our randomly-named "Atalanta" is a Scythian (presented, occasionally, as an "Amazon"), and I have to take back what I said about the writers being illiterate. You'd have to know your stuff to know what a Scythian even is in the first place, let alone to make the only woman warrior one of their number, and then to make her an archer of all things. I have to reluctantly concede that some rudiments of a classical education reached Condal and Spiliotopolous. I have also decided that this makes their ruinous hackjob much worse.
I promise I'll stop picking nits now. All nits would have been forgiven anyway, if the broad strokes didn't suck as well.
But they do.
Naturally, Dwayne Johnson in the lead can't fail to be charming—even if his lack of an affected accent makes his costars seem all the sillier, with their tedious received pronunciation. Some of it is faked, much of it is inconsistent, and as always in any dumbassed Hollywood recreation of antiquity, it stands in for a dead language.
An embarrassing attempt is made to replicate the repartee of the Warriors Three, that reliable source of passable comic relief in Thor's films. The few good jokes (mostly Ian McShane's, sometimes Johnson's) are annihilated upon contact with the terrible anti-humor that surrounds them (mostly Rufus Sewell's). If not for Atalanta's Forbidden Planet miniskirt, much of the movie would come close to not being any fun at all—and if that seems unfair, Ingrid Berdal's attempt to translate wholesale the already-underdefined Lady Sif into this dull context certainly wasn't going to do it. Needless to say, the absence of anything approaching a Loki—let alone a Tom Hiddleston—is palpable.
Oh, but I suppose some of the battle scenes are somewhat less milquetoast than you'd expect in a movie with a PG-13 rating.
The plot is so inutterably generic that I'd prefer not to utter it at all; suffice it to say that the mercenaries go and fight a Thracian War, a conflict that makes very little sense once we learn that—gasp!—their employer may have had an agenda of his own! (The only really good joke in the whole movie is when John Hurt's Thracian strongman pronounces, quite insidiously, that their "services will no longer be required!"—before failing to double-cross them entirely, and a smash cut sees the gang being thrown out of his palace, heavy with their hard-earned gold.)
But though I have damned the movie to
In many respects Hercules is the brown-and-yellow mirror to Maleficent, and even that awful movie had the decency to realize its fantasy character belonged in a fantasy film. But where Maleficent got worse with every subsequent scene, Hercules manages with an effort befitting its hero to transcend the limitations of its scenario—briefly, true, but for long enough that I can't entirely despise its lack of luster in virtually every other regard.