There's only a couple glimpses at a Hydra and Cerberus in "Hercules", but at least The Rock waves a club while wearing a lion. Credit: Paramount Pictures
'Hercules' Director: Brett Ratner Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
Michael Bay drives critics to apoplectic fits. Brett Ratner’s reputation isn’t much better. And yet Ratner has fewer defenders than Bay. That’s because while he's many times less offensive as Bay, that's the problem. Unlike Bay, he doesn’t have a singular, unique voice. He doesn’t seem to have any voice. Ratner’s films are distinguished by being big, having some degree of jokes and ... that appears to be it. You can’t defend what’s not there though you can complain about the void.
In that sense, the new “Hercules” is very Brett Ratner. It’s large, noticeably pricey and stars The Rock — sorry, Dwayne Johnson — as the muscle-bound hellion of Greek myth. That’s pretty much what one can get out of it. It has a germ of an intriguing idea, namely that — unlike every movie based on the Greek myths ever made — the gods and mythical beasts may not actually exist. Hercules is strong, sure, but is he the son of Zeus? Perhaps not. And that time he wrestled a bull for seven days? That might be an exaggeration. He actually has a gang (including a manimal and 71-year-old Ian McShane) who help make him look tougher than he is, helping maintain a legend that might not quite fact.
The way Brett Ratner shoots Dwayne Johnson in "Hercules," he actually doesn't look too imposing. Credit: Paramount Pictures
It’s a funny idea — and it’s also, come to think of it, a terrible idea. A Hercules without supernatural feats is a neutered Hercules. And a tale from the Greek myths without the myths? Is there even a point? It would be forgivable if it was clever, but it barely plays with its meta concept, and the screenplay doesn’t give Hercules an adventure remotely on the level of a Twelve Tasks or a voyage with the Argonauts.
Instead, he and his team are mercenaries who help a king (John Hurt) fend off a prince who’s been burning villages and who may also be a centaur. (Though a man-horse would be too mystical for this Hercules picture, which only gives us glimpses of the Hydra and Cerberus.) There are two largely indistinguishable battles, one with guys who look like they wandered in from Burning Man, and both confirm that this is at heart a small movie with little imagination
It looks like director Brett Ratner and Dwayne Johnson had fun making "Hercules," and that's what really matters. Credit: Paramount Pictures
Ratner doesn’t have a strong visual sensibility. One can picture him talking a big talk. Technically he delivers: yes, his “Hercules” has The Rock waving a club while wearing a lion on his head, as promised. But the images look careless, perfunctory. Ratner doesn’t even shoot Johnson to look big. At times the angles chosen make him look like he’s actually been shrunk down to normal size. He obliges by giving one of his least committed performances, only occasionally hinting at the wit and joy that marks even Bay’s “Pain & Gain.”
This isn’t to say Ratner’s “Hercules” is without pleasure. No film with John Hurt bellowing “Unleash the wolves!” could be. Even shy fantastical beasts and outsized set pieces, this is a swords-and-sandal number, tantamount to a forgettable but almost passable one from the ’60s, only with better dubbing and roughly 50 times the budget. Ratner appears to have been born in the wrong era. Decades ago he would have been an anonymous hack who cranked out anonymous genre pictures that were beloved by undiscerning audiences and viewed as curios by cinephiles in the future. Then again, that’s what he is today.