When the studio kept Hercules from critics until the last minute, I was worried; that’s never a good sign. Sure, it was almost guaranteed not to be the year’s worst Hercules movie, but Brett Ratner’s version could still turn out pretty bad. As it turns out, Hercules is a solidly fun and entertaining, if mostly mindless, summer action flick.
I say “mostly”, because there is an actual idea running through the movie: the distinction between the legend of Hercules and the facts. Never mind that the whole idea of a distinction between the two is rooted in an Aristotelian worldview that came long after the original Herculean stories, and having Hercules’ own contemporaries draw the distinction sounds jarringly modern.
The legend is pretty familiar: son of Zeus, driven to the Twelve Labours in an attempt to get the jealous Hera off his back, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is the greatest hero that ancient Greece has ever known. The “facts” are that Hercules was an orphan in Athens. His strength distinguished him in the army, and he now travels with a band of mercenaries, saving up to retire peacefully. Fighting alongside Hercules are his childhood friend Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the Amazon Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), the berzerker Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), and the seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane). And then there’s Hercules’ nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), who recounts the legendary stories to alternately build the morale of those who hire Hercules and demolish that of his enemies.
That’s the real hook. Besides being the best portrayal of the bard class from Dungeons & Dragons — a game itself strongly rooted in the idea of storytelling — the counterpoint of Iolaus’ stories against the truth serves as a reminder of the importance of stories and storytelling. Stories give us something to believe in. And so when the Thracian Lord Cotys (John Hurt) enlists Hercules’ aid in putting down a civil war, it’s as much to give his army of farmers something to believe in as anything else.
The film plays out simply, anchored by two well-shot field battles and a nice climactic set-piece. None of them will blow your mind, but they’re good fun, and Ratner does a better job than some other directors at lifting that Michael Bay spinning camera move. The screenplay, based on Steve Moore’s comic Hercules: The Thracian Wars, borrows its story beats liberally from other well-told stories, from Star Wars to The Princess Bride.
Ratner’s Hercules will probably not be joining them in the pantheon of classic stories, but it’s a good story, and well told. It knows what it wants to be, and it does a fine job of being just that. As we found out earlier this year, you can do a lot worse.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.