Saturday, August 30, 2014

HERCULES ... Not So Mighty A Movie


- Can one badass scene make a movie worth watching? Maybe. Depends how good the scene is. I pose this question because the new, Dwayne Johnson-starring HERCULES movie has one really sweet sequence (partially spoiled in the trailers), in which a chained, battered, and beaten Hercules is willed to fight against his captors by the urgent rallying cries of Ian McShane's wily comrade-in-arms, Amphiaraus. Like a coach trying to hype up his team for one last surge, McShane thunderously recites Hercules' achievements, as the blood begins to pump through The Rock's protruding veins. And then, like Hulk Hogan making his big end-of-match comeback, Hercules breaks his chains and shouts to the heavens: "I AM HERCULES!" Edited for maximum punch, the scene wakes the movie up from its slumber, and the film suddenly - though briefly - roars to life. It's an all-too-quick moment of awesomeness in what is, mostly, a fairly unremarkable, oftentimes nonsensical would-be epic. Sadly, these few sporadic moments of energy and momentum can't do much to save this saggy mess of a movie. The sad reality is that this feels like a direct-to-video dud, only slightly polished up with a good cast and some occasionally-fun action.

The plot of this one is strange, right from the get-go. Rather than showing us a Hercules who must overcome mythical beasts and angry gods, The Rock's version of the character lives in a less magical sort of world, in which the legend of Hercules is perhaps a bit exaggerated from the reality. However, even if Hercules' feats may or may not have happened as per the tales say, there's no question that the guy is a badass. And so, he and his band of hired guns travel around, looking for people in need of muscle and willing to pay for it. This leads Hercules and his band of merry men (and one woman) to Thrace, where the king (John Hurt) and his beguiling daughter recruit Hercules and co. to stave off a conquering army. So the film, unexpectedly, becomes sort of a war movie, with Hercules and his compatriots training and leading the Thracian army, against an enemy that may not be quite as villainous as they're made out to be. This leads to the movie's major story-arc for its protagonist: is Hercules a hero, or a mercenary?

It's an interesting character arc, but it's never explored in a truly satisfactory way in the film. What's worse though is how wholly uninteresting both Thrace and their adversaries are in the movie. We care little about which side Hercules and his cohorts support, because both sides seem only sketchily realized. Basically, the entire plot of the movie is only minimally compelling, and we're just not given enough reason to care about what happens one way or the other. It's almost a shame that the film's climax evokes that of Conan the Barbarian's. That classic film was artfully shot and paced, and downright epic in its presentation. HERCULES, meanwhile, has to push every contrivance button possible in order to attempt to stage a properly-epic final battle - stretching its plot to the breaking point in order to tie Hercules' latest battle with his tragic past. And yet, a lot of the seemingly low-hanging-fruit plot points go nowhere. For instance, while there are some early sparks between Hercules and Thracian princess Ergenia, nothing really ever comes of it.

Stretched thin is a good description in general for this movie. A major battle scene halfway through the film seems to go on for a good half-hour or so ... just because. There seems barely enough material to fill the film's running time. This means that some really good actors - like the great Ian McShane, playing doomed prophet (and mentor to Hercules) Amphiaraus - are left to make something out of minimally-interesting material. McShane gives it his all - he hams it up and makes a running joke about Amphiaraus' ill-timed visions of his own death into a highlight. But let's put it this way - the quality of supporting actors in this film, from McShane to John Hurt - is quite good, but that quality level is about all that keeps this one from totally crashing and burning.

As for The Rock himself ... I don't know. I mean, we all love The Rock. The guy is naturally charismatic-as-hell. But I think Dwayne Johnson is most in his element when he gets to be funny, when he gets to be a character not too far removed from his "Rock" persona. For a mythic hero like Hercules ... I just don't know if he's got the chops to truly give us the gravitas needed for a character of this sort of mythic stature. One thought I kept having throughout the movie: this Hercules isn't all that much different from Kevin Sorbo's TV version, and I think Sorbo's was probably better.

Director Brett Ratner directs some sporadically-interesting scenes, but for the most part, the movie has a flat feel that only occasionally has a real sense of epicness. I'm no Ratner-hater. I still love the original Rush Hour, and I still think X3 was actually under-rated and over-criticized by fanboys. But this film rarely feels fully alive, and many of the more interesting visual elements feel cribbed (and done better by) other movies - from Conan The Barbarian to 300.

HERCULES is at least watchable due to the charismatic cast. But it's by no means memorable, occasionally a slog, and certainly not among this summer's better action flicks. Recommended only for Rock completists.

My Grade: C-

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