By Mike Shaeffer
Hercules, USA, 2014
Directed by Brett Ratner
Action fans would look upon Brett Ratner’s X-Men 3 more fondly if no other X-men movies existed before or after it. Sadly, The Last Stand stands as the least enjoyable of the mutant franchise, and I attribute this largely to Ratner’s approach to action sequences. When he attaches himself to a solid story and a talented cast, he can churn out immensely watchable guilty pleasures like After the Sunset (2004) or the pilot to Prison Break, which hooked me into a hermit-like Netflix binge, burning through all four seasons in six weeks. So what about Ratner’s take on Hercules? The iconic lion’s head? Check. Dwayne Johnson dons the headgear like Riddick putting on his goggles just before opening up a can of whoop-ass, and you’ve got the familiar trope of a son struggling with who his father really is—see Superman, Simon Birch, Inception, The Empire Strikes Back, or even TV’s Archer.
And how does the son of Zeus stack up against some of Dwayne Johnson’s other big-screen and small-screen personas? Considering each character’s charisma, strength, tenacity, and sometimes a smack of supernatural chutzpah, his most recent character comes out on top: Hercules > The Scorpion King > Sarge > The Rock > Luke Hobbs > Chris Vaughn > Paul Doyle > Elliot Wilhelm > Jericho Cane. This Hercules is not the cocky hero that believes he is destined to defeat any foe. This is a weary mercenary-for-hire who is tired of tall tales and wants to score on one last mission so he can finally retire and be left alone—think Gene Hackman’s character in Heist or Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III. The revisionist attempt on re-telling this tale is less like Troy, a better but still flawed movie involving other epic heroes and absent gods, and much more like another movie from 2004, King Arthur, which asked the audience to consider the what ifs and the mortality behind these immortal legends.
How about the overall strengths and weaknesses of the movie? Permit me to use a trick I learned during parent/teacher conferences: try to begin the dialogue with a few positives, especially when dealing with a problem child like Hercules. The sound is crisp; from sharp blades slicing through the air, to crunching bones on the battlefield, to Ian McShane’s impeccable Swearengen sass, the sound quality of this movie was quite the treat. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it/saw-this-all-in-the-preview Erymanthian boar was the most massive realization of the beast I’d ever seen. Before this movie, chasing down a wild pig was arguably one of the lamest labors, but Ratner’s effects team provided some CGI tusks to be feared, and Ratner’s vision of Cerberus is literally nightmarish, haunting Herc’s waking moments. Another treat? Ingrid Bolso Berdal. She is one to watch. Her name is even fun to say. Take a moment to trip it on your tongue. I’ll wait. Ingrid plays the lithe and loyal Atalanta. As Hercules’ only female accomplice, she never misses the mark—as a fighter or an actor. She is fiercer than Katniss, more masculine than Legolas, and she doesn’t run out of ammo like Hawkeye. She is simply the most fun character sporting a bow and arrow in years.
There are splashes of intended and effective humor, from a clear nod to Road House to an implication that anyone who does a little “puff, puff, pass” can prophesy. Of the two writers, Ryan Condal’s short list doesn’t have anything notable, and Evan Spiliotopoulos’ writing credits are largely comprised of sequels or spinoffs to Snow White, The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Winnie the Pooh, and Tarzan. The laughs were welcome, unexpected, and well delivered. PG-13 movies are supposedly allowed one F-bomb. Burning through this one-shot allowance has been most laughable in Be Cool (also starring Dwayne Johnson), X-Men: First Class, and now Hercules, when our protagonist expresses his profound disdain for centaurs.
The biggest problem with this film—the part I didn’t get—was the reoccurring thought that it was trying way too hard to be a PG-13 movie. Opening weekend, Luc Besson’s Lucy edged out over Hercules with its superior cast, story, and R-rating. Perhaps recent fare like TV’s Spartacus and Game of Thrones has conditioned me to expect a little more grit, grime, and giggity tagged on to any plot involving swordplay. Hercules doesn’t need to have the arterial spray of Braveheart or the gratuitous nudity of 300 or Conan the Barbarian, but anyone over the age of 17 who is fascinated by the Hercules legend would be better served by a hard R. The three large battles, all led by Dwayne Johnson’s competent swagger and charm, have nary a drop of blood in them, and it feels like the studio is pulling punches for the sake of a younger audience and the PG-13 rating.
The handful of flashbacks get in the way. They are unnecessary and irritating, and detract from the action that’s trying to build. John Hurt, who’s been a favorite since 1979’s Alien, brings his A-game as Lord Cotys, but Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) is totally wasted as King Eurystheus, the Godfather of Horrible Bosses [see what I did there, Brett? Put in a plug for one of your good movies]. As Hercules’ weasel of a taskmaster, Joseph Fiennes is given barely more screen time than the aforementioned Erymanthian boar.
The lesson learned here is that X-Men: The Final Stand didn’t work, but it never would have worked as an R-rated movie—it would have shut out a huge part of the intended demographic. For stories like Hercules, however, studios and directors have got to be willing to take a risk with an R. Brett Ratner has been slated to direct Beverly Hills Cop IV, due out in 2016. I’m hoping the studios will let him release an R-rated comedy. If they’re going to revisit the Eddie Murphy franchise, softening Axel Foley for a PG-13 crowd would be the cinematic equivalent of a banana in the tailpipe, and the movie won’t go anywhere.
Mike Shaeffer is a slam poet, playwright, director, and English teacher who lives in Fairbanks, AK.