Frat-boyish filmmaker Brett Ratner has the distinction of having made the worst “X-Men” film (“X-Men: The Last Stand”), the dumbest Hannibal Lecter tale (“Red Dragon”), and the most boring “Rush Hour” sequel. That’s unfair: Having cranked out all three “Rush Hour” films, Ratner also made the least boring one. But if future film scholars ever chronicle the Great Hercules Boom of 2014, they are likely to credit him with the best of the bunch.
Yes, that’s very faint praise, as Ratner’s “Hercules” is competing with January’s bomb “The Legend of Hercules” and a straight-to-video flick called “Hercules Reborn.” But this outing does not suffer the epic badness one associates with films that aren’t screened early for critics, and in fact it offers moments of actual entertainment. It simply fails to exploit its assets: an amusing, revisionist take on the mythological strongman, and the charisma of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Johnson’s incarnation of the hero is not actually the son of Zeus. Nor does he inhabit a world of supernatural beasts such as the nine-headed Hydra. He’s just a spectacular warrior whose feats have been exaggerated over years of retelling and who relies on his inflated reputation for his career as a mercenary. Leading a crew of five, he lets his nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) rhapsodize about his famous uncle, both to would-be employers and to opponents.
These are hard times for the big H. He used to be noble, fighting for a king he admired (Joseph Fiennes) and coming home to a lovely family. But all this was taken from him in an act shrouded in secrecy but still haunting Hercules’s dreams. These days, he’s motivated only by gold.
He is offered a whole lot of the stuff to train soldiers for Lord Cotys (John Hurt), whose realm is being overtaken by a vicious army that may or may not include a band of centaurs. Hercules leads these men to victory in some conventional but not unexciting battles. But as with his own myth, all is not as it seems. Hercules will have to reconnect with his heroic nature to deal with twists the script has in store.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” goes the famous line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” But here, what might have been an enjoyable take on the disconnection between reputation and reality — taking advantage of Johnson’s knack for poking fun at his own machismo — relies too heavily on soggy psychodrama and self-empowerment folderol. (It’s worth noting that the late Steve Moore, who wrote the comic book series on which the film is based, had disavowed this adaptation.)
“You just need to believe you’re a hero,” says Hercules’s buddy Amphiaraus (the great Ian McShane, wasted here). Soon enough, Hercules performs a feat of strength that 10 real-life Olympians couldn’t accomplish together, contradicting the film’s whole premise.
That climactic stunt is less enjoyable — and less plausible — than some: Herc wields a pretty terrifying fang-topped club against hordes of villains; wrenches open the menacing jaws of a few wild animals; and pulls off a judo trick with a galloping horse that overshadows everything else in the film. He does all this in some beautiful settings, with top-shelf cinematography by Dante Spinotti (who has shot many of Michael Mann’s films) doing justice to handsome sets, costumes and scenery. The best Hercules movie of 2014 may not be much of a story, but at least its visuals are more transporting than the moodily hyper-modern look of sword-and-sandal hits such as “300” and “Clash of the Titans.”
DeFore is a freelance writer.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence, occasional harsh language and a brief glimpse of nudity. 98 minutes.