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I’m somewhat surprised. Despite quite a bit of bad press in the months leading up until its late July release, Hercules turned out to be a lot better than I expected. Anchored by a charismatic performance from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who has become one of our best action stars) and featuring slick direction from Internet whipping boy Brett Ratner, Hercules feels a lot like an old school 1980s adventure film in the vein of Schwarzenegger’s Conan movies. It’s not great art, but it is incredibly entertaining, a lot of fun, and totally unworthy of most of its pre-release criticisms (I’ll save this for later). In a summer filled with disappointing would-be blockbusters (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I’m looking at you) that failed to either live up to the hype or just be generally entertaining, Hercules is an absolute winner.
There was some legitimate pre-release criticism surrounding Hercules’ production. Late British comic book author Steve Moore received zero royalties for his involvement in the production (he wrote the comic book the film is based on, titled Hercules: The Thracian Wars). Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens more often than not. A few years ago, one of Ghost Rider’s original creators lost a lawsuit against Marvel. In response, fans threatened to “boycott” Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, a film they probably wouldn’t have seen in theaters anyway. Alan Moore, a good friend but no relation to Steve, similarly called for audiences to boycott Hercules. Additionally, some of the staff behind the film took some unfair potshots at Summit Entertainment’s “rival” The Legend of Hercules, a film that was doing no one any harm and never had any shot at actually competing against a $110 million dollar Paramount/MGM co-production.
However, there were also a few unfair criticisms lodged at Hercules. Brett Ratner of course gets his fair share of Internet hate, despite having directed only three or four movies in the last ten years. Ratner is known for slick Hollywood entertainment with very little depth. He has, however, directed some genuinely entertaining films, including Red Dragon (the second-best Hannibal Lecter film) and Tower Heist, an underrated comedy/crime caper from 2011 that did little at the box office despite an all-star cast. Ratner is largely hated by fanboys (and the Internet at large) because he is supposedly the guy who screwed up the X-Men film franchise, but I honestly can’t blame him for that. Yes, X3: X-Men United is not a good movie. I would argue it also isn’t horrible (just disappointing) and that Ratner isn’t really to blame. Some combination of Mathew Vaughn and Bryan Singer (as well as various producers and screenwriters) probably share their fair amount of blame for that production as well. But it’s just easier to say Ratner is a terrible director and ruined the film, so there you go.
Additionally, a few days before the movie’s release, word began to spread, largely due to Gawker-affiliated blog io9.com that Hercules was not a mythical/fantastical take on the Hercules legend. It instead focused on the man behind the myth. The point of the article, I suppose, was to rally people further against the film because it had misleading trailers. If that’s the case, then most movies should also receive this kind of scorn and detriment because a fair amount of trailers are also misleading, whether intentionally or not. Hercules was also not screened for critics, which is largely a death sentence for most movies nowadays. I don’t understand why Paramount and MGM had such little faith in this production. Honestly, they are really to blame for some of this films legitimate pre-release criticisms as well.
But again, Hercules is not that bad of a movie. I found it incredibly entertaining. It feels very old school in a lot of ways. It is slickly directed and has action sequences you can actually follow. There’s a fair amount of humor, much of which comes from Ian McShane, who is great in his supporting role as Amphiaraus, a spear-wielding mystic who serves as one member of Hercules’ team. Oh, Hercules has a team of adventurers with him in this film – I forgot to mention that. On the surface that seems silly, but the team really adds a lot to the film. In addition to the McShane character, Rufus Sewell portrays Autolycus, a Spartan warrior and expert with knives. Sewell once seemed to be a rising star in Hollywood, but basically disappeared completely. His screen presence here is much appreciated. Screen legend John Hurt also shows up as the desperate King of Thrace, who hires Hercules and his team for one last job. Oh, this is also the kind of film where our heroes are in for one last job before retiring. It’s that kind of a movie.
The major weaknesses in this film don’t particularly bother me whatsoever. I don’t care that Hercules is not a mythical figure in this film, because it helps humanize him. Were he a true demigod, he would perhaps be functionally immortal. But The Rock plays Hercules as a broken yet determined man. He is a man who loves his friends and loved his family. He’s out for vengeance but he’s also got a soft heart. He’s conflicted, but he’s never dour. The Rock nails it. The script isn’t great, but this is a smaller scale film than one might realize. Hercules is essentially a one-shot adventure film, despite its comic book origins. I have no problem with this. Hollywood should give us more of this. Though the film cost approximately $110 million dollars to make, it still seems kind of low budget. But again, that only serves to remind me of all of those awesome 1980s fantasy films so it doesn’t bother me much (and not every movie needs to cost $250 million these days anyway).
Though I would argue that the script isn’t great and the film’s budget doesn’t allow for massive chaos and carnage on screen, I would also argue that I don’t mind that whatsoever. This is a briskly paced action/adventure with a self-contained story that runs a thankfully short 98 minutes. It isn’t overly ambitious like Gladiator or hyper-stylistic and kind of magical/ethereal like 300 (two films I still love despite internet backlashes), but it kind of falls in between and forms a sort of happy medium. I like old school sword-and-sandal films like this quite a bit. The Rock is incredibly entertaining and also perfectly cast as Hercules. The supporting cast in this film is excellent, particularly the great Ian McShane. Ratner’s direction is slick and the on-screen action is easy to follow. It is a low stakes sort of summer blockbuster film, but again that’s ok. Not everything needs to be a $250 million dollar three hour epic with plans for an interconnected sprawling franchise. Paramount and MGM apparently didn’t have much faith in Hercules, but I quite enjoyed what I got from it.