The Watchers

The Watchers

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Mini-Countdowns: Film-to-TV Adaptations

Back in June, I did a post about films that are based on TV shows. I thought I would do a companion piece to this, by talking about TV shows that are based on films.

Recently, the TV version of Fargo (starring Billy Bob Thornton, Alison Tolman and Martin Freeman) has garenered critical acclaim and two Primetime Emmys. The 1996 Coen Brothers original movie is held in high esteem as a cult movie. 

Researching this piece threw up some interesting- and unusual- little tidbits. For example, did you know that there was a TV version of Blade made in 2006 (with rapper Sticky Fingaz in the lead role- it lasted 12 episodes)? Or that RoboCop has had not one, but two, televisual outings- a 1994 series, which ran for 23 episodes, and the four-part 2000 miniseries Prime Directives? There have also been two different TV shows based on Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita- one that ran from 1997-2001, starring Peta Wilson, and the 2010 version with Maggie Q.

So below are five TV shows based on films.

1. Buffy The Vampire Slayer


Joss Whedon was never very happy with how the 1992 film version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer came out. Luckily for us all, he got the chance to show his vision when the TV show hit the screens in 1997. Lasting seven seasons, we saw Buffy kick some serious undead ass, fall in love, sacrifice herself to save the world... then come back and do it all again. The show's quality does veer from absolutely excellent (The Body, Once More With Feeling) to utterly dire (Bad Eggs, Reptile Boy) but it's always watchable.

2. Stargate


Now this is how you do a television spin-off! The 1994 film with Kurt Russell and James Spader (as Dr. Daniel Jackson) has spawned no less than three full TV shows- Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007), Stargate Atlantis (2004-2009) and SGU: Stargate Universe (2009)- and several one-off stories (The Ark Of Truth, Continuum), as well as an animated version (Stargate: Infinity). Not bad for one- admittedly quite brilliant- film.

3. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

This TV show- which sadly only ran for two seasons from 2008-2009- was set directly after Terminator 2: Judgment Day and showed Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) and her son John (Thomas Dekker) staying under the radar whilst trying to plot the destruction of Skynet. A decent series, Headey is kickass as always... plus it essentially retcons Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines. Can't be bad! 

4. Friday Night Lights

Peter Berg directed the 2004 movie version which starred Billy Bob Thornton as the coach of the Permian High Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas. The TV version was commissioned in 2006 and ran til 2011 with Kyle Chandler in the lead role as coach Eric Taylor and Connie Britton playing his wife - Britton appeared in the film version, also playing the coach's wife.

5. M*A*S*H*

Robert Altman's 1970 war comedy- starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould and Robert Duvall- saw the staff of a Korean war field hospital use humour to keep themselves together whilst facing the horrors of war. In 1972, a television version was commissioned which ran for 11 seasons and over 250 episodes, with the final episode 'Goodbye, Farewell and Amen' becoming the most-watched TV series finale ever with over 105 million viewers. This is a record that still stands today.

And just one little added extra...

6. Carry On Laughing

The Carry On films are a staple of British cinema, from the gentle comedy of Carry On Sergeant in 1958 to the barely single-entendre shenanigans of Carry On Emmannuelle in 1978. In 1975, it was time for the small screen version. Pastiching such varied subjects as Lord Peter Wimsey, the Knights of The Round Table, and Upstairs Downstairs, it ran for thirteen episodes across two series. Some of the big Carry On names- such as Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey- did not appear at all, while others- Sid James and Hattie Jacques- only made very fleeting appearances. It's patchy as all hell, camp as you like, but- like Carry On itself- endearing and surprisingly funny in places.

There are dozens of examples of TV shows based on films, these are just a small selection of them. Are there any particularly good- or bad- examples? Let us know in the comments below.


Friday, 29 August 2014

Programme 39: Lucy, The Expendables 3, and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

The Watchers Film Show: Ep 39 from The Watchers Film Show on Vimeo.

Our latest programme is now available to view! 

In another packed show, we discuss Luc Besson's latest movie, Lucy, starring Scarlett Johannson and Morgan Freeman; Rhys gives his opinion on The Expendables 3, and (as promised) we discuss our thoughts on Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

Hope you enjoy it!

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Sin City (2005)

Currently in cinemas is Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, the hotly-anticipated sequel to 2005's Sin City. This seems like a good time to go back to assess the original film.

Sin City is, on the very basic level, a comic book adaptation. Frank Miller wrote the Sin City graphic novels between 1991 and 2000 but- having had a negative experience of working in Hollywood (with his screenplays for RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3 being drastically altered)- Miller was not keen to release the film rights for any of his other comic books, for fear of the same thing happening again. 

Director Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, From Dusk Til Dawn, The Faculty) was a huge fan of the comic-book series and wanted to make a film version of them- but wanted it to be a 'translation, not an adaptation', sticking very closely to the source material. Choosing a 3-page short story entitled 'The Customer Is Always Right' from the 1994 collection The Babe Wore Red And Other Stories, Rodriguez got actors Marley Shelton (The Customer) and Josh Hartnett (The Salesman) to perform against a green-screen then added the background scenery in digitally. Once filming was completed, Rodriguez flew Miller into Austin to see the finished result. Very happy with the end result, Miller agreed for several of his Sin City yarns to be adapted for the film. This 'proof of concept' footage acts as the opening scene of the film.

Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton in 'The Customer Is Always Right'
The three yarns adapted for the film are 'That Yellow Bastard' (the Hartigan/Nancy storyline), 'The Hard Goodbye' (Marv's story) and 'The Big Fat Kill' (Dwight's tale), and the film takes the Pulp Fiction mode of having separate chapters but not necessarily seen in the proper chronological order. It is interesting to note there is no official screenwriting credit for the film, apart from noting they are based on Miller's graphic novels. That is because of Rodriguez' desire to translate Miller's work as closely as possible on-screen. Rodriguez and Miller worked very closely together, with Miller providing direction to the actors and Rodriguez using the original comic books as storyboards. Rodriguez felt both he and Miller should be credited as directors and, when the Directors Guild of America would not allow it, Rodriguez resigned from the DGA to allow the co-director credit to stand. Quentin Tarantino is credited as a Special Guest Director, for filming a scene in 'The Big Fat Kill' which sees Dwight (Clive Owen) imagining a conversation with Jackie Boy (Benicio del Toro) in his car, before being pulled over by the police.

Tarantino's scene
Along with Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2004), Sin City is one of the first films to be shot on a digital backlot. Whilst the majority of the film was shot on green-screen, using Sony HDC-950 high-definition digital cameras, there were several practical sets created, including Kadie's Bar (seen in all three stories) and Shellie's apartment (seen in 'The Big Fat Kill'). The film was initially shot in colour and then converted to black-and-white with colorisation of certain elements within a scene (the colour of someone's eyes or lips, a car, and so on). The end result is striking, stylish and not like anything that had come before it. The visual style of the film is absolutely sumptuous, the backgrounds beautifully rendered. The violence- and there is a lot of it, limbs flying round with abandon, blood splattering all over the place- is strikingly rendered in white (and yellow in one scene) which adds to the comic book feel of the piece. It would certainly be a different film if the bloodshed was rendered properly.

Nick Stahl as The Yellow Bastard
Performances are pretty good across the board, with Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Clive Owen giving solid lead performances as Hartigan, Marv, and Dwight respectively. Willis' performance is emotionally affecting- Hartigan feels like the last good man in a corrupt police force, fighting to save the young Nancy from the clutches of an abusive child molester. Rourke is great as Marv, a solid lump of a man with a bizarre streak of chivalry which leads him to track down the killers of a young woman who was kind to him. Owen oozes danger and charisma as Dwight, a criminal caught in the crossfire between the girls of Old Town and a corrupt cop. There's a great turn by Rosario Dawson as Gail, de facto leader of the girls of Old Town and a former flame of Dwight's. Jessica Alba is similarly strong as the grown-up Nancy who still remembers the man who saved her, whilst Rutger Hauer has a nice cameo as Cardinal Roark, whose misdemeanours lead him to a confrontation with Marv. 

Mickey Rourke as Marv
The film was shown at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival and was in competition for the Palme d'Or. Whilst it did not win, Rodriguez was awarded the Technical Grand Prize for the film's visual style. It grossed $29.1 million in its opening weekend in the US and took $158.7 million at the box-office worldwide. Reviews were, as you might expect, mixed. Whilst Roger Ebert called it 'uncompromising and extreme... and brilliant' (giving it 4 out of 4) and another reviewer stating 'Really, there will be no reason for anyone to make a comic-book film ever again', other reviews lingered on the 'murder, torture, decapitation, rape, and misogyny.' It is not a film for the fainthearted or the easily offended. It is a relentlessly macho film, a gritty throwback to the film noir style of the 1940s where men were men and women were either virgins or whores. There's a lot of female flesh on show but there's also a refreshing streak of unapologetic female sexuality (seen in Gail and the girls of Old Town). 

Sin City is hailed by some as a modern classic and its place in the evolution of film-making is undeniable. It's gritty, gory, stylish, visceral and one hell of a ride. But does A Dame To Kill For live up to it? We'll be sharing our thoughts on the film in an upcoming programme.


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)

It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of Lauren Bacall. The Hollywood star of the Golden Age has passed away at the age of 89.

Born Betty Joan Perske in New York in 1924, Bacall came to the notice of Hollywood director Howard Hawks when she modelled for Harper's Bazaar. She made a very memorable screen debut playing lounge singer Marie 'Slim' Browning in Hawks' 1944 war adventure To Have And Have Not. The 19-year old Bacall starred opposite the 44-year old Humphrey Bogart, and gave one of cinema's most iconic lines: 'You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow.' Called a 'sensational new discovery' and referred to by Variety as 'a young lady of presence' in their review of the year, Bacall impressed many- including Bogart, who she married in 1945. They starred together in three more movies- The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948)- and were together until Bogart died in 1957.

She had a memorable role in How To Marry A Millionaire (1953) opposite Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, and appeared in televised versions of The Petrified Forest and Blithe Spirit. After Bogart's death, she appeared in a few mediocre films and then took to the Broadway stage, where she performed for five years in various productions to high acclaim. In 1967, she appeared in the Broadway comedy Cactus Flower- which she performed in for two years- and then proceeded to go into a musical version of the 1950 Bette Davis film All About Eve, now titled Applause. Bacall won a Tony for her performance and also played the role in London.

On the big screen, she put in a marvellous performance as the abrasive Mrs Hubbard in Sidney Lumet's star-studded version of Murder On The Orient Express (1974) and appeared in John Wayne's last movie The Shootist (1976). She had a rare starring role as an actress being stalked by a deranged admirer in 1981's The Fan, but the reviews weren't great (although many praised Bacall's performance). Later that year, she returned to Broadway to star in the musical version of Woman Of The Year. In 1988, she appeared in another Agatha Christie adaptation- Appointment With Death- an appeared as James Caan's agent in Misery (1990). 

In 1996, Bacall appeared as Barbra Streisand's mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. For this role, she was nominated for her first- and only- Oscar, in the Best Supporting Actress category (but lost to Juliette Binoche). In the same year, she appeared opposite Jack Lemmon and James Garner in comedy My Fellow Americans.

In 2003, she appeared in Lars Von Trier's Dogville (reuniting with the director for his 2005 film Manderlay) and also provided the English language voice of The Witch Of The Waste for Studio Ghibli's version of Howl's Moving Castle. She also appeared opposite Dogville co-star Nicole Kidman in Jonathan Glazer's controversial 2005 movie Birth, and appeared as herself in an episode of The Sopranos. Her last on-screen credit was in the 2012 movie The Forger with Alfred Molina and Josh Hutcherson.

Whilst never winning a competitive Oscar, she was one of the first recipients of the Governors Awards (honorary lifetime achievement Oscars), receiving the honour in 2009. In her book Now, she wrote “I’m called a legend by some, a title and category I am less than fond of.” Legend, she said, was a reference to the past, and she was more interested in the present and future. Despite her reticence for the title, many do regard Bacall as a legend. I would go one further and say she is an icon of Hollywood's Golden Age. She leaves behind an impressive legacy. My thoughts are with her family and friends at this time.


Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Robin Williams (1951-2014)

Like many, we at The Watchers were absolutely devastated at the news that Robin Williams had died. The stand-up comedian and Oscar-winning actor passed away on Monday 11th July.

Borin in Chicago in 1951, Williams studied at the Juilliard School before performing stand-up in nightclubs. It was during one of these gigs that he was seen by the producers of Happy Days, who asked him to audition for a guest spot as an alien. The character of Mork from the planet Ork was originally conceived as a one-off, but Williams proved so popular they not only brought the character back, he received his own spin-off- Mork & Mindy- which ran for 94 episodes from 1978-1982, in which Williams would get to work with his own comedy icon Jonathan Winters.

Throughout the 1980s, Williams worked steadily in films such as the live-action version of Popeye (1980) and the screen adaptation of John Irving's The World According To Garp (1982) opposite Glenn Close and John Lithgow. In 1987, he starred as American DJ Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson's Good Morning, Vietnam. For his performance, he received the first of his Best Actor Oscar nominations and also won his second Golden Globe (his first being for Mork & Mindy). Williams rounded off the Eighties by playing inspirational English teacher John Keating in the moving and powerful Dead Poets Society, which would gain him a second Best Actor Oscar nomination.

However, had things gone to plan, he would have rounded the Eighties off in a much bigger way- he was offered the role of The Joker in Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and had accepted it whilst Jack Nicholson hesitated. Ultimately, as we know, Nicholson took the role. Williams was upset about this and later refused the role of The Riddler in Batman Forever (which was ultimately taken by Jim Carrey). 

The 1990s arguably saw Williams at the peak of his powers. His IMDB record shows 10 movies made between 1991 and 1992. These include Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King (his third and final Best Actor Oscar nomination), Hook (in which he played a grown-up Peter Pan) and Toys. He also provided the voice of Batty Koda in Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, his first foray into animated features. 

In 1992, he also provided the voice of the Genie for Disney's animated version of Aladdin. His quickfire schtick and wide variety of voices (such as Jack Nicholson, Groucho Marx, Rodney Dangerfield and Peter Lorre) are an absolute delight, apparently racking up over 16 hours of material due to his improvisation (which meant the film was ineligible for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination as so much was ad-libbed). Also ineligible for Academy consideration (as the Academy does not recognise voice-only performances), Williams nonetheless won a special Golden Globe for his performance as well as a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor.

1993 saw the release of Mrs. Doubtfire, an adaptation of Anne Fine's novel about a father who goes to extraordinary lengths to see his children when his marriage breaks down. For me, this is probably Williams' quintessential performance. He's screamingly funny in places yet can also break your heart. His anguish at being apart from his kids is writ large across the screen, yet the script gives him enough rein to indulge in some voicework- his interview with the unimpressed Anne Haney is particularly good- and broader comedic moments. He won another Golden Globe for his performance. He also has brilliant cameos in Nine Months (1995) and To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) and gives a strong lead performance in the fantasy family movie Jumanji (1995).

 In 1996, Williams took one of the main leads in The Birdcage, an American remake of the 1979 French film La Cage Aux Folles, about a gay cabaret owner and his drag queen companion (Nathan Lane) who agree to put up a false straight front so that their son can introduce them to his fiancĂ©e's right-wing moralistic parents (played by Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest). It's possibly the only film I've ever seen Williams upstaged in, by the absolutely hilarious Lane. But, like Mrs. Doubtfire, there are moments of pathos and drama amongst the camp and the glitter. 

Williams also took a small role in Kenneth Branagh's star-studded and uncut version of Hamlet (1996) and also played an absent-minded inventor in Flubber (1997). After three previous Oscar nominations, Williams finally struck gold in 1998, winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his searing turn as psychologist Sean Maguire opposite Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. The scene in which Sean challenges Will about the nature of life- ending with the challenge 'your move, chief'- is absolutely gripping and moving at the same time. The 1990s rounded off with performances in What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man (where he plays an android who wishes to become human)

In the early 2000s, Williams' career took a darker turn when he appeared in three psychological thrillers, effortlessly showcasing that he could play disturbed and dangerous as much as the comedic. In One Hour Photo (2002), he plays a shy loner who becomes obsessed with a family whose photos he develops. In Insomnia (2002), directed by Christopher Nolan, he plays a writer who is the prime suspect in a young woman's disappearance, and in the criminally underrated Death To Smoochy (2002), he plays a disgraced children's TV presenter who plans to bump off his replacement.

Throughout the 2000s, he balanced lightweight comedies (RV, License To Wed) with darker dramas (The Night Listener, The Final Cut) and voice work (Robots, Happy Feet). In 2006, he appeared as a waxwork of American President Theodore Roosevelt in Night At The Museum, reprising that role in the sequel Battle Of The Smithsonian and will appear in the third instalment Secret Of The Tomb, which completed filming earlier this year. He also appeared as American President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Lee Daniels' The Butler and starred in TV comedy The Crazy Ones opposite Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Despite an impressive filmography, Williams also loved doing stand-up comedy. His madcap stream-of-consciousness rants are a wonder to behold. His 2009 stand-up Weapons Of Self Destruction is well worth a look. It's full of brilliant one-liners, dazzlingly filthy jokes, but he is also refreshingly and brutally honest about his history of substance abuse and alcoholism. 

For many people of my generation, Robin Williams was a comedy genius. The world will be a much less funny place without him in it. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this very sad time.


Review: The Inbetweeners 2 (UK Cert: 15)

Few people will disagree with me on this one: E4’s The Inbetweeners is one of the best sitcoms of this century. Not just that, it’s up there with the very best that this country has ever produced. The Inbetweeners was one of those shows you had to record; you missed half of it because you were laughing so much. Damon Beesley and Iain Morris came up with a show that was laugh for a good solid minute funny, and constantly cringe making. You know a TV series is a hit when you’re on a night out with friends and everyone has seen it, talking about their favourite moments, and which Inbetweener they’re most like.

Once the series had come to an end, FilmFour took the gamble of commissioning The Inbetweeners Movie.  Big screen spin-offs are rarely a good thing; most end up being swept under the carpet and never spoken of again. Just as the series ended up being a fondly remembered classic, so too did its cinema debut. The Inbetweeners Movie may have rehashed plenty of scenes from other horny teenage comedies, but it had triple the jokes of its American cousins as well as being surprisingly sweet at times.

You can’t blame FilmFour for deciding to make a sequel; stick a poster up of The Inbetweeners and fans will queue up to see it. The problem is that the first film was as near-as-damn-it perfect as you can get, plus it wrapped things up nicely for Will, Jay, Simon and Neil: they’re no longer Inbetweeners, the boys have finally become men. Where do you go from there?

With The Inbetweeners 2, Will, Simon and Neil decide to pay their old friend Jay a visit in Australia, convinced his life has got to be a whole lot better than theirs. True to form, Jay is all talk; he’s having a lousy time down under. In an effort to cheer each other up, the lads go on a road trip round Oz in Jay’s car, the Mobile Virgin Conversion Unit; a wreck on four wheels with Peter Andre’s face spray painted across it (it makes Simon’s car from the TV series look like a top-of-the-range Audi).

Whereas this summer’s other comedy sequel, 22 Jump Street, played on the fact that it was the same film and everyone was in on the joke, The Inbetweeners 2’s biggest problem is that it’s virtually a carbon copy of the last film, but Morris and Beesley are hoping you won’t notice. Jokes that are supposed to make you red-faced from laughing lose their punch as you’ve seen most of them before, all done better in the first film and all three series.

That’s not to say that The Inbetweeners 2 is anything like American Pie 2, it has some moments that will have you laughing at full volume the cinema and not caring: Jay’s daydream about what he thinks life is like down under; Neil feeding a dolphin; Simon trying to dump his girlfriend via Skype, only to end up proposing to her; and finally, best of the lot, Will trying to avoid a turd on a waterslide. While The Inbetweeners 2 has plenty of one-liners that will have you sniggering, there is nowhere near the amount of howlers that were in the first film.

What saves the sequel is the chemistry between the four actors. Simon Bird (Will), James Buckley (Jay), Blake Harrison (Neil), and Joe Thomas (Simon) all do a faultless job of portraying four young British lads that are instantly recognisable, each of them memorable. Despite the insults and trying to embarrass each other, theirs is a solid friendship and, while Will and the gang would never admit it, they care about each other. There’s a touching scene when all four of them are convinced they are going to die in the outback and say their goodbyes to one-another. It’s brilliantly over-the-top, but also emotional.

Morris and Beesley throw in a couple of nice ideas. Tamla Kuri turns up again as Simon’s girlfriend Lucy, only she’s far from the sweet, selfless girl in the first film; here she’s a control freak who deletes any of Simon’s female friends on Facebook that she doesn’t like the look of, constantly puts him down, and gets angry over the tiniest little thing, such as Simon being a couple of minutes late Skyping her. Kuri isn’t onscreen all that much, but when she is she’s always funny. There will be many men out there who will sympathise with poor Simon.

Whereas the first film was a show no mercy portrayal of club eighteen-to-thirty holidays, The Inbetweeners 2 has its sights firmly set on pretentious, guitar-playing, sandal wearing backpackers. Another highlight is Will going on a venom spitting rant about why none of these people want to save the planet or find themselves; they’re simply there because mummy and daddy paid for their holiday.

The Inbetweeners 2 isn’t an all-out disappointment, but it doesn’t compare either to the sitcom or the original film. You wonder whether Morris and Beesley decided, from the outset here, to go toe-to-toe with American comedies in terms of gross-out gags. By doing this, they’ve forgotten what won the series so many awards. The Inbetweeners has never been about projectile vomiting or losing control of your bowels (although these are two of the finest scenes from E4’s sitcom), it’s about teenage boys failing miserably in their attempts to be popular; you feel embarrassed for them because you’ve been there. Sadly, you don’t get any of this with Will, Jay, Simon and Neil’s latest adventure. Everyone has their favourite scenes from The Inbetweeners, the tragedy with this sequel is that none of its set pieces will make it onto anyone’s Best Of list.

3 out of 5


Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Programme 38: Summer Blockbusters 2014

The Watchers Film Show: Ep 38 Summer Blockbusters of 2014 from The Watchers Film Show on Vimeo.

It's been a bumper summer full of blockbusters, so the Watchers get down to discussing what we thought of this summer's big movies. We discuss comedy sequel 22 Jump Street, animated feature How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Marvel's latest movie Guardians Of The Galaxy, whilst there's some interesting splits of opinion on Transformers: Age Of Extinction and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.


Review: Hercules (UK Cert: 12A)

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