In the battle of the 2014 Hercules flicks, Brett Ratner’s sly little smash-em-up, Hercules clearly emerges the victor over Renny Harlin’s unintentionally hilarious blunder, “The Legend of Hercules” from earlier in the year. This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s so much as glimpsed a shot from the cheapo origin pic or even just taken stock of Harlin’s sinking career lately, but what does come as a surprise is that hack extraordinaire Ratner has made something so delightfully refreshing in the narrative department. His Hercules, based on Steve Moore’s similarly titled comic book with a screenplay credited to Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, marks a novel approach to the character, spinning a tale about the truth behind the legend and letting this revisionist angle sink into every corner of the story.
Having fun with the concept right from the start, Ratner’s Hercules gives us a sort of Cliff Notes version of the usual tale, with quick flashes of the snakes being strangled by the hero as a little boy and action shots of the beefy adult edition (a long-haired Dwayne Johnson) dispensing of several of his infamous twelve labors foes, including the impressively CGI’ed Erymanthian Boar and the Nemean Lion. It’s basically the trailer reel for a traditional Hercules movie all packed into a trailer-friendly couple minutes, giving off the sense that the movie is ready to wrap things up before most movies have even finished with the opening credits.
It’s all a ruse, of course, as we soon discover that we’re simply an audience for storyteller and Hercules relative Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), who is in a sticky situation with some nasty pirates and trying to get out the only way he knows how: By spinning an intimidating yarn. The pirates doubt the truth of Iolaus’ tale, but soon find themselves face-to-face with Hercules himself. When Johnson enters the scene, he’s wearing the supposed head of the Nemean Lion as a bit of battle garb, except this lion is a more realistically sized creature compared to the mammoth beast we saw Hercules grapple with a moment ago. The difference boils down to a playful gag, a wink that speaks to a cinematic fascination with hyperbole and also doubles as an amusing image, reminding us that this Hercules may be just a man, but he’s still crazy enough to wear a lion on his scalp.
This sense of pinpointing where the Hercules legend meets reality essentially becomes the movie, which is always more interesting as a commentary on mythological status than it ever is as a straightforward action romp complete with silly villains. The plot itself isn’t particularly novel, involving Hercules being employed by the withering King of Thrace, Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to mold his men into soldiers in hopes of putting an end to a brewing civil war. With the training of an army comes the dreaded training montage and Ratner doesn’t miss a beat here. It’s a low point of Hercules, though thankfully a brief and easily digestible one.
Ordinarily the king of mediocrity, Ratner dragging out such a tired device from his uninspired arsenal is to be expected, but the rest of Hercules finds the director sharper and more tuned in than usual. While the plot allows the movie to dash through an easy buildup/action/repeat pattern, it also cleverly contributes to the commentary on the myth versus the man. Johnson’s Hercules has worked hard alongside his band of merry mercenaries, including a comical seer (Ian McShane) who’s always awaiting his death and an exacting Amazonian archer (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) whose prowess on the battlefield is nearly unmatched, to support his larger-than-life reputation. It’s clear that the legend of our hero is no accident, so now that he’s surrounded by wide-eyed newbies looking to the pseudo-demi-god for guidance, Hercules has to be especially careful to hide the truth.
Everyone seems to be a skeptic in this group too, constantly questioning the legitimacy of various claims attributed to the legend. Just keeping the facade from crumbling is an uphill battle, but there’s great excitement in watching an experienced Hercules and his partners working the crowd at every turn. This is Hercules as the ultimate con man, a charming beefcake whose showmanship is as toned as his biceps. It’s a fun way to enliven the twist because it puts us in the shoes (or sandals) of both parties, allowing us to be wowed by the great feats and apparent indestructibility of the heroes one moment and then letting us in on a trick or a fib afterwards.
So the plot rushes along in simplistic fashion, its main focus ensuring that Hercules and his pals always have a foe to face once the obligatory few minutes between action sequences runs out. Ratner keeps the pace quick and upbeat, handling the downtime and the set pieces with a consistent coolness that benefits from the cast chemistry and pretty locales that look lovely on the towering IMAX screen. This is also Ratner’s first movie to get the 3D treatment and while it’s a conversion (for comparative purposes Harlin’s take was shot in native 3D), the stereoscopic effect is fine enough, not always immersive, but not exactly distracting. A fitting result for a Ratner first, perhaps.
Action sequences are well handled here and since Ratner generally fared better than his American counterparts when it came to capturing Jackie Chan’s acrobatic movements in his Hollywood roles, it’s only fair to admit that competent action geography has probably never been Ratner’s problem. Blazingly loud and chaotic battles in his Hercules are generous to the senses and to the characters, giving each hero a chance to shine and really showcasing how they work as a team.
This Hercules has all of the pieces in place to make a rousing B-actioner, with its handsome lead, concise running time, and love of heroic clichés. But the sum is also a bit more than its parts would suggest, a smart little non-fantasy myth flick that provides glimpses of multiple mythological creatures before quickly debunking everything from centaurs to the multi-headed hydra. From start to finish, Ratner and everyone involved remain entirely committed to the commentary on myth-making and the intriguing ways that legend and reality can overlap. Like the hero of his pic, Ratner has spent most of his career as a sort of con artist himself, hocking his hackneyed products for Hollywood treasure. Hercules doesn’t exactly upgrade Ratner’s status, but at least this time, for once, he has something worthwhile to sell.