You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone not at least a little interested in seeing The Rock play Hercules. In terms of casting, it’s as absolute a no-brainer as one can imagine, and even at its worst, the concept promises a little cheesy sword-and-sandals action that never hurt nobody. And Hercules carries more up its sleeve than just rehashing the old Steve Reeves routine. Put that and the star together, and the film delivers everything we might reasonably ask for.
The gimmick is killer: Herc may be a fraud. All the money shots arrive in the first few moments, as a storyteller relates his legendary Twelve Labors and the great monsters he slew. Then director Brett Ratner gives us a glimpse at the man behind the curtain: Herc and his buddies work as mercenaries, and the stories make good promotional material for their services. The mythic creatures often carry mundane explanations at their heart (the Hydra is just a bandit gang dressed up as snakes), and the question of any larger magic in the world remains open from the first scene to the last. Certainly, our hero knows how to kick some tail, but is he truly the son of Zeus? No one knows, not even him.
Hence, when Hercules and his band of buddies take on an evil king, neither we nor they can spot where the actual bad-assery ends and the piles of bullshit begin. Director Brett Ratner moves the action along in an agreeable fashion, with plenty of well-plotted fight sequences and an intensity that matches the tone well without stepping beyond the realm of Officially Designated PG-13 Fun. But the twist adds a level of tension that we might not have appreciated otherwise (because serious, who’s going to stop Dwayne Johnson in a role like this?), and allows the screenplay to catch us be surprise more than once.
Similar concepts follow an identical arc, such as Ian McShane’s soothsayer who receives annoyingly vague visions of his own death that he constantly has to prepare himself for. As an action mash-up, the film passes muster, but it provides some vital energy to cover up for what is essentially a bait and switch. We don’t see many CGI monsters after the first sequence, and indeed much of the movie consists of dialogue in darkened rooms rather than the balls-out effects-o-rama the advertising promised. Thanks to the big gimmick, none of that matters, and indeed it may have helped attract grade-A talent like McShane, Rufus Sewell, John Hurt and Joseph Fiennes (who make those darkened talks much more interesting than they could have been).
That doesn’t make Hercules high art, of course, but it further proves what Hollywood can do with a little thought and effort paid to its popcorn. Johnson has a ball, the bad guys prove suitably dastardly, and even Ratner’s notorious sexism stays under wraps (thanks largely to Ingrid Bolso Berdal as Herc’s archery-obsessed pal Atalanta). Its comparatively modest ambitions disguise the heart put into it: simple and straightforward, but with a lot of joy and a good sense of fun. At his best, Johnson always delivers on that equation. Even at his worst, he can still find bits of it here and there, and Hercules is long, long way from his worst
Those earthy pleasures always feel most at home in the latter half of the summer, as the Dog Days creep upon us and blockbuster ennui hits pretty hard. Hercules makes a great tonic for that, devoid or pretense or ambition, and hoping just to give you a few surprises along with its good clean dirty fun. With bigger tentpole pictures expanding their release dates further and further in every direction, we need to keep a place for modest works of crowd-pleasing junk. Hercules takes its crowd-pleasing seriously, and in in so doing becomes a lot more than junk.