A film review by Craig J. Koban August 7, 2014 


2014, PG-13, 98 mins.


Dwayne Johnson as Hercules  /  John Hurt as Cotys  /  Ian McShane as Amphiarus  /  Rufus Sewell as Autolycus  /  Aksel Hennie as Tydeus  /  Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as Atalanta  /  Joseph Fiennes as King Eurystheus  

Directed by Brett Ratner  /  Written by Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos


HERCULES feels like a film that was written by nine-year-old boys for nine-year-old boys.  The child in me kind of dug it, but the adult in me was kind of incessantly bored with it.  


I guess if one considers the target demographic audience, HERCULES essentially delivers on its promise of video game inspired sword and sandal action and intrigue, but beyond that the film is dramatically empty and emotionally hollow.  Sans for the innately likeable on-screen charm of Dwayne Johnson as the titular character, there’s very little to personally invest in here.  Johnson’s granite carved physique, affable demeanor, and headstrong commitment to his role notwithstanding, HERCULES is too tedious to watch and endure for its own good.


Director Brett Ratner’s film – based on the far more compelling graphic novel HERCULES: THE THRACIAN WARS – does, at the very least, make some concentrated efforts to stray away from the more popular mythical undertones of the Greek divine hero.  In the world of the film Hercules is more man than all-powerful deity that takes a personal journey from being a money-grubbing mercenary to an honor bound and ethically sound crusader of justice.  The film tries to take the myth out of this larger-than-life figure and scale him down to some sort of earth-bound reality where Greek gods may or may not exist.  This approach feels both fresh and novel, but HERCULES seems more akin to throwing would-be flashy and immersive CGI effects and spectacle on screen than it does with being a thoroughly introspective investigation into its character.  And, yes, Johnson certainly gives it his all in the part, but as the film progresses you can almost sense his struggles with trying to infuse some pathos and soul into a character that’s frankly not there on the written page.




As the film begins – after a introductory origin montage that teases at the more fantastical origins of its protagonist that may or may not be true – we are introduced to Hercules (Johnson) as a mercenary for hire that is teamed up with his loyal comrades in arms: Autolycus (Rufus Sewell, finally playing a good guy!), Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) and his nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie).  Even though his daily exploits are focused on securing enough gold to ensure himself a prosperous future, Hercules is constantly plagued with nightmarish – and hazy – memories of his family’s death (which he might have had a hand in).  Nonetheless, when on the “job” Hercules is an unstoppable opponent, which is driven home by the fact that his own demi-god status is more of a propaganda initiative on the part of his team to assist them with making an easy buck and easily scaring their enemies.


Hercules and his posse are eventually offered a job that they can’t refuse to help Lord Cotys (John Hurt, hamming it up with paradoxical restraint and poise) to help protect his kingdom against a band of rebels.  Hercules agrees to the new mission – mostly because it involves a sweet payday – and takes it upon himself to train Cotys’ people – mostly farmers, not warriors – to fight and defend themselves for the impending war to come.  Hercules becomes quick friends with Cotys’ daughter, the easy-on-the-eyes Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) and her son, both of whom perhaps become new de facto wife/son figures in his life that also give him a higher purpose.  Rather predictably, Hercules is confronted with the difficult nature of his new mission – not to mention some seedy double crosses along the way – that make him drastically re-evaluate the trust of his employer, but also his status as a cold-hearted merc.


I’ll dispense with the good of this film first: Dwayne Johnson is arguably the only solitary reason to stay with this film until its end credits.  Despite his Incredible Hulk like stature in the film – he endured a rigorous training regiment to look the part, and it most definitely shows throughout – Johnson is one of those rare action film behemoths (like Schwarzenegger before him) that can match his brawn with an affable screen presence.  Where he may lack in range as an actor, Johnson certainly makes up for it in terms of raw star power (that, and he alone may be the only actor alive to make his character’s entrance in the film – wearing a loincloth and a lion’s head for a headdress – look anything but ridiculous).  You can also gain an immediate sense that Johnson is trying to play things relatively straight in this otherwise cockamamie film.  Considering what’s on display here and what he has to act opposite of, Johnson is kind of commendably understated as Hercules.


Yet, as mentioned, Johnson is not given much of a fully realized character to portray here.  Any attempts by the script to embrace its premise of demythologizing Hercules are half-hearted at best and are never truly exploited to its fullest.  Once the film establishes its potentially fascinating conceptual framework, it seems to forget about what it wants to do with it next.  HERCULES is also a tonally fractured effort at best, and Ratner seems to lack the affinity or even common sense as to what precise kind of film he’s trying to make.  Sometimes, HERCULES is a self-referential comedy with in-jokes and anachronistic language (characters frequently drop modern colloquial vulgarity for reasons never fully explained, which draws you immediately out of its fantastical universe).  Other times, Hercules wants to be a somber investigation into its character’s damaged past.  Worse yet, the film attempts, I think, to be a whimsically freewheeling, family-friendly adventure yarn, but then degenerates into blood curdling violence that pushes the boundaries of its own PG-13 rating.  This has to be one of the most schizophrenically light-dark films I’ve seen. 

I don’t blame Johnson for this film’s failures.  Not at all.  He’s the kind of star that seems proverbially born to embody Hercules on a physical and dramatic level, and for that the film is a modest success.  I only wished that the film built around Johnson’s not-too-inconsiderable talents were better tailored towards them.  A film trying to pare down an iconic figure of godlike stature to human-like standards – albeit still with freakish strength and resolve – is a tricky proposition, but HERCULES is simply not the film to tackle it with any confidence and interest.  The film has its pleasures, to be sure (witnessing Johnson beat multiple enemies to a pulp with his hilariously massive club is a hoot and never gets old), but, for the most part, HERCULES is thematically muddled, visually dark and ugly (the 3D here mixed with Dante Spinotti’s dreary cinematography is a real turn off) and kind of dramatically D.O.A..  This film ultimately needs a Zeus-thrown lightning bolt of inspiration.        

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