A bore, a drag, an eyesore, a trifle: Brett Ratner‘s ‘roid-brained “Hercules” is all of these, but most of all it’s a self-satisfied smirk drawn on a 64-ounce protein shake. It’s a supernatural epic that never feels quite colossal or consequential enough, as well as an utter waste of Dwayne Johnson‘s unique dopey-flirty charm in a starring role that requires him only to open his mouth very wide when yelling and look unmistakably masculine while wearing nothing but a leather miniskirt and one of those animal-head hats popular with middle-school girls.
Adapted from the comic book by the recently deceased Steve Moore (who repotedly wanted his name removed from the film), this Hercules belongs to the Dark Knight school of gloomy antiheroes. Johnson’s demigod comes with a ghastly backstory that would fell mere mortals: his entirely family was slaughtered while he was in the same room with them, and it’s rumored that he’s the culprit, since according to the New Comic-Book Hero Rules, behind every great man is a great woman who meets a violent death because of him.
(In the actual Greek myth, Heracles did kill his wife and child, which, yikes.)
Befitting his status as half-man, half-deity, Hercules is also a celebrity — he may be said to have killed his wife and children, but his contemporaries are apparently willing to overlook the misdeeds of the hot and famous. (Ancient Greeks: they’re just like us!)
His reputation makes him and his merry brand of kill-happy friends highly sought swords-for-hire, especially for aging King Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt) and his daughter Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson).
Facing a rebellion that threatens to tear Thrace apart, Cotys enlists Hercules on a one-last-time-before-retirement gig to train his army and help fight the insurgent Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). But Hercules gradually realizes that he may be fighting for the wrong side, and that his career as a soldier of fortune has resulted in one moral compromise too many. Consequently, the character’s inevitable journey toward righteousness proves genuinely rousing.
If only the rest of the film could compete with the compelling mystery behind the fate of Hercules’ family and the slippery royal intrigue at the Thracian court. Unfortunately, most of the film is devoted to repetitive battle scenes of scythes slashing necks and spears squishing into chests.
Occasionally the ever-gruff Ian McShane gets in a good joke. He plays the scarred seer Amphiaraus, who knows he won’t die for a long time, and so doesn’t mind standing in the middle of a battlefield with arms akimbo, daring a hail of fire-lit arrows to hit him. None do.
Thanks to his divine origins, Hercules seems similarly impervious, both to the arrows flying all around and the English accents of everyone else in the cast. (Johnson sticks to his American patois.) Even more distracting is the awful CG all around him, from the soldiers in wide shot to the sparely elegant palace and the surrounding busy village of Thrace.
The film’s best special effect is Johnson’s massive muscles, which leave him looking less like a person than a stony mountain. Too bad Hercules has the personality to match.