Brett Ratner is a director that isn’t held in particularly high regard. At his worst, he’s capable of putting a beloved franchise on the skids for a few years but at his best, he is a competent director who can turn out a solidly entertaining film. His latest effort is swords-and-sandals actioner Hercules, a loose adaptation of Steve Moore’s graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars.
Instead of focusing on the well known Hercules stories, the film gets 12 labours out of the way in an opening montage and we catch up with the son of Zeus, played by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, during his post-labours career as the leader of a ragtag band of mercenaries, consisting of seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), Amazonian archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), feral man-beast Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), dagger expert Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) and young wordsmith Iolaus (Reece Ritchie).
Hercules and his crew are hired by craggy old Lord Cotys (John Hurt), the King of Thrace, to save his land from a maniacal warlord who may or may not be a centaur: half-man, half-horse. The film actually plays around with mythology in an interesting way early on, with Iolaus acting as a somewhat unreliable narrator as he tells tales of Hercules’ legendary feats, which we see glimpses of on screen but are never sure whether they actually happened or not. It’s an interesting approach to a well-known legend and makes us doubt whether Hercules really is as heroic as the myth suggests or if he is just, as he appears to be, a mercenary.
Unfortunately the film abandons this interesting premise in favour of showing Hercules performing feats of strength so ridiculous that even someone of Johnson’s considerable heft couldn’t come close to achieving, destroying any ambiguity the story had going for it.
It’s that kind of lack of commitment that hampers the film the most, with Ratner trying to straddle the line between campy action comedy and dark, family-murdering mythology. Somewhere in here is an amusing and light fantasy, a fresh take on a well-worn story but all the cheesy one-liners and Ian McShane’s delightfully daft performance are muddied by scenes of Hercules awkwardly dealing with his inner turmoil.
It’s a pity as Johnson, with his comedy chops and considerable charisma, is the perfect star to carry a comedic action film but it feels like his particular talents aren’t put to full use here. The supporting cast aren’t given much to work with either but the casting itself serves as a shortcut for characterisation. When we see old pros as familiar as John Hurt and Peter Mullan, as one of Lord Cotys’ generals, it’s not difficult to work out who we’re dealing with.
Hercules’ crew are a mixed bag, with McShane stealing scenes as he awaits his own preordained death and Hennie’s rabid turn is the complete opposite of his coiffeured Headhunters character. The rest range from bland to completely forgettable, especially Berdal’s Amazonian warrior who, like all women in this film, is completely underserved.
Still, at just over 90 minutes, Hercules doesn’t overstay its welcome and there are enough decent jokes and vaguely diverting action scenes to keep things relatively entertaining throughout. Johnson is a worthy hero and McShane is having a blast but the insistence on trying to make the film dark is at odds with the more enjoyable, sillier elements.