Review: 'Hercules' Starring Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane And John Hurt

HerculesThere are cheap costumes, cartoonish
special effects and endless nonsense monologues in Brett Ratner‘s
Hercules." Ergo, there’s also Ian McShane. HBO‘s "Deadwood" blew up the journeyman actor’s career, making him a must-have
accessory in the eyes of all casting agents. But since the end of
that show, where he essayed the role of the iconic Al
Swearengen, he’s been lost in an increasingly inessential sea of
special effects-heavy blockbusters, from “Pirates Of The Caribbean:
On Stranger Tides
” to “Jack The Giant Slayer," from “The
Seeker: The Dark Is Rising
” to “Snow White And The Huntsman." You figure the qualifications for McShane appearing in your movie involve the
least amount of acting possible. “Hercules” may be the first film
where, finally, everyone is on the exact same page as McShane.

Of course, if you don’t know McShane,
don’t worry: he’s in the bulk of scenes in “Hercules," and yet
you won’t even remember he was there by the film’s close. Like the
costumes, like the effects, his presence is perfunctory. This is a
vehicle for Dwayne Johnson, the charismatic wrestler-turned-actor who
hasn’t yet lucked into the type of role that suits his specific skills. But like the
previous efforts to turn him into a star, "Hercules" can’t seem to find a way
to synthesize his charm and considerable physical presence to produce
the next Schwarzenegger. Like Arnold, he’s massive, his bulk rippling
in an awe-inspiring way: the way Dante Spinotti captures the sun
playing over Johnson’s rippling biceps is nearly worth the price of
admission. And like Arnold, you immediately like Johnson. He smiles, it’s instantly contagious, and you feel safe around this gentle
giant. Problem is, Arnold had both these attributes at the same time.
“Hercules," more than any other Johnson film, feels the need to
alternate between them.

This is a byproduct of the
film’s story, or at least its bare outline. The legend of Hercules
echoes through the villages, but when we meet Johnson and his colorful
gang of warriors, they’re strictly soldiers for hire. What’s more,
Hercules is but a man, not a god, much to the disappointment of all
who meet him. This feels like a foolish distinction when you have
Johnson literally throwing horses onscreen. A more classical
“Hercules” movie, where Johnson does not hide his supernatural
brute strength behind modesty, is the one you want to see. This film
troubles itself instead with “the truth behind the legend,”
which, as it turns out, is just more legends, albeit more believable
ones. It feels like a stab at a more contemporary, Earth-bound view
of folklore. It also feels like a complete lack of imagination
masquerading as invention: let’s make a “Hercules” that’s less
like the legends of Hercules, and more like literally any other
ancient-history scrum.

Poor Johnson is a physical marvel, but
has absolutely nothing to play. He glowers, drops anachronistically
sarcastic one-liners, and rubs the heads of well-behaved moppet
children. He also seems to alternate between accents, often settling
for vaguely-historical British, while also suggesting this Hercules
is mildly mentally disturbed. Of course, the first half hour of the
movie is spent with every character talking about how strong, proud
and wonderful a guy Hercules is, to the point where a subplot about
possibly having murdered his family is the dumbest possible red
herring. Tragedy instead of characterization.

There’s a plot (a war, an army, a
double cross, etc.), but the script is almost all expository
dialogue, and each dialogue scene is about two minutes or less in a race
to the end. “Hercules” feels like a problem picture, a film that
just doesn’t work, requiring extra last-minute time in the edit
bay. Irrelevant plot points whiz by whether you comprehend them or not, while
statements like, “I have a plan” just hang there, unanswered. The
movie is packed with dubious ADR, and concludes with a hysterically
out-of-place voiceover, one of many voices providing the film’s
narration. There are post-production fingerprints everywhere, and
given the mercifully short runtime (98 minutes), there’s the sense
that the studio salvaged Ratner’s footage with the intention of just
making it comprehensible.

Not to say the film is absent of
pleasures. Johnson’s presence remains a marquee attraction, and he’s
probably the only actor alive who could convincingly portray some of
the more outlandish action sequences in the film. He’s surrounded by
a posse that includes the gorgeous bow-wielding Ingrid
Bolsø Berdal
and the mad-eyed
Aksel Hennie of “Headhunters," who both get moments of acrobatic
glee amidst all the nonsense. In 3D, a couple of the brawls have
moments that pop, though they pale in comparison to this year’s
similar “300: Rise Of An Empire," with a couple of sequences
relying on the sort of dopey gizmos you’d see on a Saturday morning
“Hercules” cartoon. Which would probably be a more appropriate
venue for “Hercules," a programmer that proudly lets the
audience move five steps ahead of its nonsense plot. It’s mythmaking
for dummies, a “Hercules” with no poetry, only incompetent brute
strength. But Ian McShane had a good time. [D+]