Thursday, August 6, 2015

"Hercules" (2014)

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Rufus Sewell and John Hurt
Written by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos
Directed by Brett Ratner
Rated PG-13 — Violence, language, brief nudity
Running Time: 98 Minutes

The legendary Hercules (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) is leader of a band of mercenaries. They make their way by frightening their enemies with embellished tales of Hercules' victories against incredible monsters. Along with Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), Atalanta (Ingrid Berdal), Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) and Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), Hercules is hired by King Cotys (John Hurt) to help defend the land of Thrace from a vicious enemy — the army of Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann).

But while Hercules and his cohorts attempt to keep their deception about Hercules' exploits from Cotys and his men, especially the skeptical General Sitacles (Peter Mullan), so do they suspect that Cotys is also keeping something from them. And all the while, Hercules himself is still tormented by his greatest failure: to stop the murder of his wife and children, the event that banished him from Athens and led him to the lonely life of a wandering warrior.

Of two competing Hercules movies in 2014, this one always seemed poised to be the superior entry, with a bigger budget and a bigger lead (in more ways than one). It also has a pretty interesting conceit: that the legends of Hercules are just that, legends. It's unfortunate then that for all it has going for it, it's just kind of an okay movie.

At a brief 98 minutes, the story flies by and the characters don't get much chance to show much meat. There's a great deal of interesting ideas to mine here, especially one of a disgraced, slightly older Hercules who isn't sure of his place in the world or his fate, and the political intrigue and deception surrounding the ruling of Thrace. But the film moves at such a quick pace, never taking the time to breathe or explore its concepts and ideas, so when Atalanta declares the group of mercenaries as a family that must stick together it feels perfunctory rather than earned.

Worse, the script doesn't know what to do with its third act after the film's most interesting twist — that Rhesus was not the enemy, and that Hercules has been fighting for the wrong side — and the whole thing kind of falls apart in a climax that feels messy and small. The bones are here for a more emotional climax. This film really needed about another half hour, honestly, to really dig in and earn the payoff happening at the end. I would gladly watch that version of this film, even if it means sacrificing the snappy pacing.

Still, the film generally has some entertainment value. For the most part, the computer generated effects are pretty solid, and director Brett Ratner stages the action well. Ratner gets a lot of heat from folks about his films, but on a technical level, they're all usually fine. He's just not all that good at selling character or telling stories. His films are all like this one: technically proficient, but lacking any real artistry.

The cast is definitely a highlight, though it's obvious that they're just doing what they can with what they've been given. As usual, Dwayne Johnson proves himself a fun, charismatic lead, even when playing a character like this who's supposed to be a bit tired and worn. He finds good chemistry with the other players around him, especially in his scenes with Ian McShane (who himself is always a pleasure to have around). Johnson's physique is somehow even more impressive than his acting skills. I have no idea how it's humanly possible to do what that man does — check out some of the articles on the Web about his workouts and his diet.

"Hercules" streams on Netflix and Amazon Prime, and that's a fine way to experience it. It's not good enough to be required viewing, but solid enough entertainment for when you just want to relax and watch a movie starring the Rock. It's a little sad that it's not more than it is, though, which is kind of funny considering the main thrust of the movie...