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Hercules (2014)
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by Brett Gallman

"Chisel the legend."
2 stars

If you need any further evidence that the gods can still be unkind, consider this: of the two Hercules films released into theaters this year, Brett Ratner was gifted with the meatier one where The Rock wears a lion on his head, while Renny Harlin toiled away with Kellan Lutz for a film that felt a half-step away from arriving direct-to-video.

Ratner, of course, has been the critical punching-bag-du-jour for some time now—not necessarily because most of his films are utter abominations but because they often manage to hum along as complete white noise. Much of his oeuvre simulates a dip into the Lethe: I have seen nearly all of it, but I’ll be damned if I remember many specifics beyond their amenable competence. “Hercules” feels destined for the same fate, which is kind of shame since any movie featuring a lion-clad Dwayne Johnson punching a horse seems like it should be more memorable.

Not only that, but Ratner is mining some interesting source material in Steve Moore’s original graphic novel, a take that imagines that the legend of Hercules is just that: a legend that embellishes the actual exploits of the possible demigod who may or may not have been sired from Zeus’s loins. A prologue supposes that his famous labors feature kernels of truth, and Ratner provides brief glimpses of a few of them, including the one where Hercules nabbed his rather garish headwear. After the voice-over narration recounts his feats, we’re suddenly presented the truth: maybe Hercules is just a guy—a guy seemingly chiseled out of stone and capable of crushing your skull with his bare hands—but just a guy all the same (maybe).

Surrounded by a pack of trusted companions, he travels Thrace doing mercenary work, with his latest gig arriving in the form of a plea from a local beleaguered king’s daughter (Rebecca Ferguson). Caught in a spat with a ravaging warlord, Lord Cotys (John Hurt) needs someone to come and train his overwhelmed army of farmers, and Hercules is that guy. And that’s his story here, more or less: that of the merc-with-a-heart-of-gold who trades a nice payday in for honor and virtue as he’s drawn into this deceptively labyrinthine power struggle.

Usually, I’d balk at an attempt to ground an obviously mythological character in something approaching reality—I’m sort of over this grim-and-gritty phase—but I’m begrudgingly compelled by any movie that goes all “Liberty Valance” on the legend of Hercules. I imagine I might have been rapturous had the film actually committed to that concept. Instead, it toys with it without fully engaging it; the most intriguing split between reality and legend concerns the fate of Hercules’s dead family, and the film unsurprisingly soft-pedals on the legend. It’s never in doubt that the film is hiding the grisly truth behind their demise—this Hercules is too virtuous, too sullen, too haunted to reside within grey areas.

Johnson is fine in this mode—he’s a naturally charismatic performer whose sincerity is obvious, and, no matter how ridiculous “Hercules” is, he never flinches. Much of his turn hinges on his godly physique, which Ratner captures much like a sculptor in awe of his subject: Johnson might as well be cast in shimmering bronze, forever frozen as a meat-headed object d’art. If Ratner excels at one thing, it’s knowing what to do with actors (even if it entails just stepping out of their way), and that’s true here: “Hercules” is a parade of badass hero shots and handsomely mounted (but rather unimaginative) action sequences—it’s vintage Ratner, right down to the fact that I can already barely remember much of anything besides Johnson pummeling that horse and tipping over a giant statue.

Ratner’s decision to constantly tread the line of ambiguity is ultimately just frustrating, as the film can’t settle into or excel in any mode. It’s not studious enough to be a thoughtful exploration of demystification, nor is it absurd enough to serve as completely ludicrous pulp. Everything cool about the Hercules legend is somehow deflated: the hydra is just three guys wearing masks, Cerberus is merely three wolves, etc.

Hercules’s ragtag group of fellow mercenaries is the most interesting addition to the lore, but even it hints at a much cooler, more boisterous ancient men-on-a-mission flick than the one here. Only two emerge from the pack: Ian McShane’s Amphiaraus (reimagined as a smart-ass seer) and Askel Hennie’s Tydeus (the group’s semi-mute mad dog). Opposite the heroes, Hurt and Joseph Fiennes take advantage of brief opportunities to inject the film with a broad verve that’s often sorely missing otherwise.

While filmmaking isn’t easily reduced to pure numbers and resources, it seems pretty obvious that Ratner’s sandbox is more robust than Harlin’s: the effects are sturdier, the acting troupe is more committed, the script is more daring, and the entire thing doesn’t look like it was shot exclusively in a thinly-dressed Hungarian village. Because of this, you’re impelled to consider it the superior of the two and yet it still feels like a waste. In a few years, each film is likely to be confused for the other (“no, Harlin’s was the one where Kellen Lutz became a Christ-like figure!”), assuming both aren't forever consigned to the nether regions of the underworld.

There’s a moment in the film when Hercules’s herald is spit-balling possible titles for the hero, and both are dismissed as boring. I couldn’t help but think about the two “Hercules” films bestowed upon us this year and nod in approval.

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originally posted: 07/26/14 14:30:03
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User Comments

12/03/15 1800suckmydick What's next, a Cleopatra remake? Skip. 2 stars
11/05/14 meep Rather boring, been done much better 2 stars
9/23/14 Charles Tatum Instantly forgettable 3 stars
7/31/14 David Save your money and skip the 3D or IMAX. 3 stars
7/26/14 Bob Dog Great old school sword 'n sandals flick with updated sensibility! 5 stars
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  25-Jul-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 11-Nov-2014


  DVD: 11-Nov-2014

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