By Jessica Delfanti | July 25, 2014
Director: Brett Ratner
Writers: Ryan Condal, Evan Spiliotopoulos,
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, Rebecca Ferguson
Despite all of his rebranding as “Dwayne Johnson,” there comes a point in time where you just have to admit: this guy will never stop being “The Rock.” And that isn’t so bad–against all odds, the body builder and ex-wrestler has proven himself to have keen comedic timing, charisma, and a healthy helping of self awareness that now makes him an attractive leading man. His good qualities are highlighted in Brett Ratner’s surprisingly good Hercules to create a fun, exciting, silly and stylish action adventure film.
Here, Johnson plays the title role after Hercules has completed the legendary 12 Labors. His Hercules is a bit darker than the one you read about in high school English: he’s been banished from Athens and now works as a mercenary, fighting for gold. When he is contracted by Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to fight an invading force, he must choose whether to accept his place in myth as the son of Zeus or retain his mercenary ways.
While one might imagine that Johnson is getting a bit old for this kind of role, he plays Hercules with a convincing paternal tilt, guarding over his nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) and leading his band of warriors as a fatherly figurehead. This may be one of the only movies for which his “The Rock” persona is actually perfectly fitted: as a half-god, it makes sense that he is so huge, and as he lifts enormous statues, fights impossible enemies, and brings down buildings singlehandedly, it feels almost believable.
But it is not just Johnson that makes the film work. Hercules operates under a conceit that its hero does not complete his impressive feats alone; instead, he is helped by his band of mercenaries. Each individual is set apart with unique combat choreography, driving a strong sense of character development via visual cues: Amphiraus (Ian McShane), a seer that fights with a long staff and prophesies his own death; Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), a rogue Spartan that throws knives; Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), a barbarian berserker that dual wields axes; and Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), an Amazonian archer of Scythia.
The characters are remarkably developed and perfectly cast, each with a unique voice and costume indicative of their histories. The sad exception to this is Atalanta, who is depicted wearing eyeroll-worthy midriff-bearing leather armor. As an Amazonian woman, the film loses an opportunity to cast a strong woman of color here, but instead have cast Bolsø Berdal, who is extremely thin and extremely white, and feels like a huge stretch from the classic image of the Amazon. To her credit, Bolsø Berdal plays Atalanta with attitude, but every time the camera pans to show her full form, she looks more like a college girl wearing a skimpy Halloween costume than an ancient female warrior.
Luckily, this distraction isn’t enough to ruin the truly epic and thrilling fight scenes. The movie is stupid in many ways (the right ways, I’d say) and it shines in its hamfisted, highly choreographed and designed combat. The warriors complete impossible feats, with Hercules sometimes killing men with a single punch, and mix comedy into every action. The different fighting styles compliment each other so that it feels somewhere between a slapstick routine and a dance. And boy, is it fun.
Fun is probably the best way to describe Hercules. It is dramatic and big, showy, epic, but it is also aware of what it is, and views itself with just the right amount of humor. There are a few straight up jokes that had people laughing out loud in the theater, but there are also moments of emotion that are surprisingly heart rending. Several mythological animals are portrayed in detailed CG, and other effects are polished and tight. Everything feels in its place. It may not win any Oscars or lead its audience to consider the meaning of life, but it will leave you grinning–and hoping for a sequel.