Brett Ratner could come up with a TV series that’s just as good as Prison Break, or Beverley Hills Cop 4 (scheduled for a 2016 release) could end up being the best of Axel Foley’s outings, there are people out there who will never find it in their hearts to forgive the man: X-Men fans. It’s no exaggeration to say that The Last Stand did for X-Men what Batman and Robin did for the Caped Crusader: it killed a franchise. Original X-Men director Bryan Singer was brought back on board to start again, to help come up with prequels that put a great big line through the events of The Last Stand.
Since 2006, Ratner has kept his head down with a number of small-scale (small-scale for Ratner) producing and directing roles. Back in the director’s chair, Hercules is Ratner’s big return to multi-million dollar, summer blockbuster filmmaking. I sat down, expecting Hercules to be a predictable ninety-odd minutes of action: a couple of exciting set pieces, one or two crack-a-smile one-liners, but nothing new here. Instead, Ratner has more than a few smart ideas here.
Based on Steve Moore’s graphic novel, this isn’t a blockbuster film that throws minute-after-minute of CGI at the screen and little else, Ratner’s Hercules feels like a toned down interpretation of the Greek myth (bet you weren’t expecting Brett Ratner and “toned down” in the same sentence, were you?). Having failed to protect his wife and children, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is no longer a noble warrior, he’s a mercenary; he’ll only agree to a job if the pay’s good enough. While there are plenty of stories about Hercules, how he defeated the hydra and a gigantic lion, there are those who refuse to believe them. Even Hercules questions whether he is the great hero described in the tales.
Ratner sparingly uses CGI, preferring battles with hundreds of flesh-and-blood actors, briefly bringing in the computers for an occasional aerial shot to make it look like you’re watching a clash between thousands. The beginning of Hercules is tongue-in-cheek and surprisingly clever. Ratner throws in all the CGI during the film’s opening five minutes, exposition aplenty as we are told how Hercules is half-man, half god, and how he has spent his life trying to accomplish the Twelve Labours. Deadly snakes, giant boars and lions, plus a multi-headed serpent: it’s all over-the-top pomp with virtually frame-after-frame of ropey-looking CGI. You forgive all of this when the film cuts abruptly to the here-and-now, those listening to the tales questioning whether any of it’s true, or a load of hokum to send Hercules’s enemies all of a quiver. This is Ratner’s sly way of telling the viewer, if you’re expecting a brainless film with special effects trying to cover up for wooden acting, move along, because this is not what you’re about to watch.
The acting is all up to standard, nobody lets the side down. Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules isn’t quite the brooding, introspective hero from Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or Snyder’s Man of Steel, but Johnson does a fine job as this hard-faced man who has turned his back on the past, but is unable to forget it. Johnson also gets the odd, growling one-liner; the man can easily deliver a snarling punch line on par with Jason Statham or Hugh Jackman.
While Hercules’s band of rogues are written in to help him out of a tight spot, they’re not your usual wafer-thin characters or eye candy. Rufus Sewell makes deadpan humour look easy, coming up with a quick remark every couple of minutes. Aksel Hennie doesn’t say a single word during the film, yet he’s great to watch as this fierce, wild eyed warrior that only Hercules knows how to handle. Deadwood’s Ian McShane plays a soothsayer who has foreseen his own death, but the clues the gods give him are vague at best, McShane clearly enjoying his character’s dry humour and hammy magic tricks. Ingrid Bolso Berdal gets a rough deal with her character: she’s basically Orlando Bloom’s Legolas. While Berdal is convincing enough in the action scenes, and she gets given a couple of visual gags, her character is there to put an arrow in a foe’s back whenever Hercules or his friends forget to watch theirs.
While Hercules never reaches the heady heights of other blockbuster films out this year (it’s no Guardians of the Galaxy), it’s enjoyable throughout and well-handled by Ratner. It won’t put your brain into fifth gear, but it’s a lot smarter and nowhere near as straightforward as most big budget fantasy films (it’s not Leterrier’s Clash of the Titans either).
3 out of 5