If there’s one thing that can be relied on in Hollywood, it’s Brett Ratner’s aptitude for turning any silk purse he stumbles over into a sow’s ear. Ever since he plunged an all-star cast and great script for Red Dragon into pungent mediocrity (it’s okay, we’ve still got Manhunter), there’s a fear that each new project will be an opportunity for him to dash someone else’s potential. So far, we’ve escaped lightly. True, he desecrated the X-Men franchise with Last Stand. But then there was the not-bad Tower Heist (at least, it was a sign the old Eddie Murphy still exists, so perhaps I was just grateful for small mercies). Now Ratner has made Hercules, a lousy movie about Hercules that wasn’t the lousy movie about Hercules directed by Renny Harlin. The comfort is, even if Ratner had no involvement, this would still be a lousy movie about Hercules.
Hercules is based on the recently departed Steve Moore’s Thracian Wars comic book. Alan Moore and his interplanetary beard kicked up a stink about the perceived opportunism of Paramount/MGM recognising Moore on ads only after his death. Which may be the case, but Moore (Alan) needs no excuse to grind his axe with Hollywood. The main question is why this myth-busting take on the demi-god was considered to be a remotely appealing idea. I understand that Moore’s take, while it intentionally moved away from the mythological beasties, stopped short of actually decrying Hercules’ status as a son of Zeus. Even then, one has to wonder; what’s the appeal of the character, shorn of the challenges that made him famous? You may as well have a barely-out-of-nappies Arnie lumbering around present day (1970s) New York.
It’s shocking how, post-Harryhausen, Hollywood has failed to have the slightest clue about how to render the Greek myths on screen. One would have thought the opportunities were endless and seductive, what with the leaps and bounds in effects technology, but instead they’ve been mostly hamstrung. The Clash of the Titans remake was miscast, misdirected (by the previously reliable Louis Letterier) and only enabled a sequel thanks to the dire 3D foisted upon it.
Ironically, the lesser offenders are the contemporary Percy Jackson & the Olympians pictures, which at least appear to have a genuine affection for the original legends and iconography. Troy seemed particularly unforgivable at the time, embarrassed to admit to the deity-fuelled antics of The Iliad in a post-Gladiator world (Clash is similarly botched, grit and crew-cuts and shakycam imbued). I hasten to add, I really like the Director’s Cut of that movie, but the ass-backwards thinking that inspired it seems to have also infected the limp charade that is Hercules. Hollywood even manages to shoot itself in the foot when appealing to the Christian market, introducing scepticism to Exodus when what’s needed for box office is unquestioning belief. If Tinsel Town isn’t willing to be cynically devotional for the sake of the dollar, then all hope is lost.
In Hercules, the titular muscle-bound hulk, who trades quips in modern style with his modern pals, isn’t the son of Zeus at all. He’s a warrior, all right, but his amazing feats are a mixture of the support lent by his crew, the oratory of his annoying nephew, and the (hugely patronising in visualisation, but that’s Ratner) natural capacity for exaggeration his fame encourages.
His gang consists of seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane, reaping the scant laughs, and looking remarkably robust for seventy-plus), Autylocus (Rufus Sewell, the Han Solo type, right down to running off with the gold and coming back at the end; the most shocking thing here is that Sewell doesn’t turn out to be a bad guy), Tydeus (Aksel Hennie, giving it some with his boggle eyes) and Amazon archer Atlanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, a more toned, statuesque and less frosty Nicole Kidman type). Oh, and the enormously annoying Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), the PR-guy and Hercules’ Scrappy Doo. Of all the characters who needed a spear through the temple…
Hercules, of course, has a haunted past. A really boring one involving a not-at-his-best Joseph Fiennes (he rarely has been since Shakespeare in Love). Herc wants to retire somewhere quiet, beside the seaside, beside the sea. So it is that his band of mercs takes a gig for a shed load of gold from Lord Cotys (John Hurt, who clearly decided it was a chance to catch some rays and let his beard unfurl some), training Thracians to fight the Bessi tribe, who are endangering them. Inevitably there are tales of the supernatural qualities of the Bessi, which turn out to be bunkum (they’re not centaurs! They’re men on horses! Just look at the CG go!) As do the good intentions of Cotys and his right-hand Mullan.
This is tiresome stuff, only occasionally enlivened by the Brit and Nordic thesps on vacation. The most egregious sin is that we keep getting visual cues – via tall tales, dreams or hallucinations – of the sort every kid wants from a mythical movie; the labours depicted in an obviously CGI but still encouraging enough manner. It’s as if the tub of director actually wants to make a bomb (this didn’t bomb, but neither was it an out-and-out hit); the only noteworthy aspect of the not-centaur reveal is that I’m quite sure any watching twelve-year-old’s heart leapt at the thought they might finally see bona fide strange creatures, only for it to sink when realisation dawned.
As such, it’s an odd movie. Revisionist takes are ten-a-penny (remember Clive Owen as King Arthur, again shorn of magic?), and they are rarely successful on their own terms. This is no exception. Its clueless director throws in an obligatory f-word (“Fucking centaurs”, a common oath in ancient Greece) and blends current colloquialisms with cod-Shakespearean tones. There’s zero finesse. Ratner’s action chops have improved a little since Last Stand. There’s an entertainingly mighty punch during Hercules’ first mano-a-mano dust-up, and a reasonably executed fight against the Bessi, but big set piece CG climax is dull.
Somehow, Hercules cost $100m, and somehow it managed to make nearly $250m. Which, in Dwayne Johnson terms, is his most successful star picture (that isn’t a pre-existing franchise). Johnson’s okay. He’s ever affable, but he doesn’t have any edge. This may be why, as much as everyone likes him, he hasn’t become a bona fide star (he doesn’t get bums on seats). Ratner’s always been a moronic moviemaker, but now he can add a killjoy feather to his cap. As one of the characters says on hearing Iolaus stories, “What a load of crap!” Which just about sums up Hercules’ director’s career.