This is one of those films that many people felt was a betrayal of their expectations, primarily because the trailers made it seem as though The Rock was going to be taking on mythological creatures as the mighty Hercules. Instead, the film uses most of the trailer footage within the first five minutes, as a voiceover narration tells the tale of Hercules’s birth and epic feats, only to have the rug pulled out from under our feet to reveal that those myths were merely embellishments of more realistic feats pulled off by the “real” Hercules and his band of misfit mercenaries. This left a lot of movie-goers with cinematic blue balls, as it became clear that traditional army warfare was going to supplant their high fantasy expectations. And frankly, that’s a bit of a shame, because the film taken on its own merits isn’t all that bad.
See, I understand wanting to misdirect the audience in order to get their butts into the seats on opening weekend, but if you are going to subvert their expectations, you need to do so in a way that makes what they were expecting miniscule by comparison. Turning the Herculean feats into the marketing tools of a misfit band of blades for hire is a neat idea, but there’s no way that it can provide the level of spectacle that modern blockbuster audiences have come to expect. This isn’t helped by the fact that the violence is kept relatively bloodless in order to maintain a PG-13 rating; a hard R might have been able to deliver a level of excitement that would elevate the film’s action out of the depths of mediocrity. It’s not bad action, mind you, just very obviously restrained.
What makes the film work, though, is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays a very likeable and humble Hercules, and he has an eclectic cast of supporting characters that, while archetypal to an ever predictable fault, are still fun to watch. My personal favorite was Ian McShane’s warrior seer, who may or may not be able to predict the future, and yet almost always seems to be right. Everyone has humorous quips at just the right moments to break the tension, and because of that, what would otherwise have been a slogging, by-the-numbers affair shows a bit of personality.
Alas, it’s still not a great movie. The film teases that the opposing army has centaurs, and given that the film has already shown its hand that mythological creatures don’t actually exist in this narrative, the revelation that the “centaurs” are just soldiers on horseback is more than a little predictable. The climax of the film also has a huge plot-convenient event take place off-screen, and it robs Hercules’s character arc of some of the gravity necessary to really pull together. That said, it’s not as if you’ve never seen this type of story before, so the fact that it’s so familiar may be enough to pull some viewers through to the point of catharsis. (Think Kratos’s backstory in God of War, and you basically have the broad strokes of Hercules’s tragic origins.)
All in all, Hercules is something that I’m definitely glad I didn’t go to see in the theater, but didn’t mind spending an evening with. For what it is, it’s a decent action film with some likeable performances and a plot that, while pretty brainless, does its job at entertaining. Give this one a rental, and then promptly forget everything about it while still retaining positive feelings about the experience.
This was the second Hercules film this year, and both were box office flops. Have people just had enough of sword-and-sandles myth-making? Or is that simply indicative of the films’ quality? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.