Hercules brings Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s career full circle in a way. Johnson’s first starring role was in The Scorpion King, another film about an ancient warrior. The Scorpion King was less than impressive, and Johnson’s film career didn’t really take off until he started piggy-backing onto existing franchises (G.I. Joe, Fast Five) in recent years. Now he’s back to headlining a story about a mythic hero, and the results are…well, all right.
Hercules has been receiving a surprising pass from most of the nation’s critics (as of this writing, it was at 61% on Rotten Tomatoes) mainly because a lot of people collectively decided to lower their expectations, which usually doesn’t happen with critics. Perhaps it’s easy to lighten up on this film because it makes fun of the idea of a myth, allowing it to be much more fun than that other crappy Hercules movie that was deadly serious. Also, Dwayne Johnson simply looks out of place. He looks silly with the long hair, beard, and warrior getup. He is utterly unbelievable when he’s removed from a modern setting. Finally, Brett Ratner directed it, and everyone has accepted that he makes mindless, kind-of fun movies.
I’m with the critics who gave this a pass. I enjoy Dwayne Johnson’s persona, and it was refreshing to see them mess with the myth rather than try to replicate it. The characters stop short of winking at the audience, but everyone appears to be having fun and/or picking up an easy paycheck (I’m looking at you, John Hurt and Ian McShane). It’s easy to laugh along with the cast at the lighter moments. More importantly, it allows you to laugh at some of the ridiculous physical moments as well (The Rock throwing a horse comes to mind). Overall, it made the film worth a watch.
Although I am giving this film a pass, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have some major issues with it. As I was watching, it occurred to me that this was Dwayne Johnson’s attempt to make a Conan the Barbarian film a la Schwarzenegger. Hercules in this film is simply a mercenary, much like Conan, who has to help a king. Along the way he learns about being a hero and blah, blah, blah. Hercules isn’t truly worthy of comparison to that film because of a few key mistakes. It’s not dark enough. If the film decides to abandon the myth, then they should plant the film firmly in reality. Instead, Hercules seems to be all powerful through sheer luck. He never gets in battle formation and simply hangs out in front of the army, clubbing whoever walks near him. Even though he teaches warfare in the film, he showcases no knowledge aside from “Smash bad guys!” All of this would be fine if the action was brutal, but it’s all bloodlessly cartoonish and a bit boring. Director Ratner could have easily fixed this by showcasing how strong Hercules is, mythic or not. Don’t show a quick shot of him swinging a club followed by a faceless goon collapsing. Add some oomph to it! When Hercules hits someone with that club, it should be impressive, but he appears to be no better than any of the other warriors onscreen.
I’m breaking my own rule of critique by focusing so much of my negativity on a comparison to a similar film, but it’s hard not to when there was true potential here. That other Hercules movie (the one with a guy named Lutz in it) had no promise and thankfully disappeared quickly. (In fact, I think this film made a joke about the title of the film at one point, though I’m not sure if that was coincidental or intentional.) I’m still waiting for The Rock to fulfill his Schwarzenegger destiny, and this was the latest chance for him to do so. I guess I just need to accept that the age of Schwarzenegger & co. has passed, and it is never coming back (perhaps this is best evidenced in the increasingly silly interactions of those stars in The Expendables franchise). It’s probably more likely that The Rock will simply join that franchise than headline his own great action film. Oh well, I can always go back and re-watch those vastly superior films from the ‘80s and '90s.
Of course, all of this might just be me showing my age. Perhaps a younger audience will watch this and respond to it the same way I responded to Conan the Barbarian the first time I saw it. I sure hope not, though. Regardless, Hercules isn’t an awful movie or anything. It’s forgettable, light fun with a cast much more impressive than it deserves. You won’t want your money back when it’s over, but you will forget you saw it by the end of the year.
Hercules receives a: