Sunday, July 27, 2014

Whose Daring Deeds Are Great Theater? HERCULES

If you had to pick one working actor who could play a convincing Hercules, it would have to be Dwayne Johnson. (It certainly wouldn’t be Kellan Lutz. Just ask Renny Harlin.) The man formerly known as The Rock has the right solid body-builder muscle and charismatic broad-shoulder, wide-stance confidence to be believed as the ultimate demigod strongman of Greek myth. That’s the key here: believable myth. Hercules, the latest telling of the legend, imagines Hercules as a troubled mercenary with a tragic past who spreads exaggerated tales of his parentage and deeds to get work and scare enemies. When he stomps in wearing the pelt of a lion for a cape, the mane flowing down his armored back, a massive spiked club held lightly in his huge hands able to smack down five men with a single blow, it’s easy to see how little a leap it takes to believe the legends.

From Italian peplum pictures to a Disney musical, the character of Hercules has a lot of versatility. Screenwriters Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos (of a bunch of direct-to-video DisneyToon sequels) adapt Steve Moore’s comics into a relatively small-scale adventure. At least it’s not a big brooding bore. The open sequence is a rapid-fire retelling of Hercules myths with the hulking demigod fighting impossible monsters: a hydra, a giant boar, a massive lion. It’s a fun, splashy creature feature and a tease, as it is revealed to be a story told by one of Hercules’ band of mercenaries. The storyteller (Reece Ritchie) is joined by an Amazonian archer (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), a seer (Ian McShane), a swordsman (Rufus Sewell), and a mute feral man (Aksel Hennie). Then in walks the man himself. It takes a lot of people to spread the carnage they pin on their leader. Good thing, with dreams, visions, and optical illusions, ancient Greece is a place used to thinking of itself as supernatural.

But Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules more than merely looks the part. He acts like it, too, even if his immense strength is merely at the extreme upper edge of mortal strength. That’s still not so bad, if you ask me. And in battle he can certainly handle himself well, taking out hundreds of enemy combatants while his colleagues help him pick off the rest and the people who hired them cower from a safe distance. This allows the big guy to fake out the people with talk of his Gods-given power and then walk the walk by, say, hiding an arrowhead between his knuckles so it looks like he kills an enemy warrior with one punch. Smart idea. Above all, I liked his arc from guy who says he’s a legend to a guy who works hard to become his own legend. If anyone could do that and pull it off, it’s The Rock.

After some introductory throat-clearing that introduces us to the world of this Hercules, Herc and friends are hired by a king (John Hurt), his daughter (Rebecca Ferguson), and his general (Peter Mullan), to help stop troublemakers giving his villages a beating and working their way slowly to the castle. Complications and battles ensue, with plenty of swordplay, archery, spear-throwing, chariot-riding and other forms of ancient combat. At one point, Hercules flips a horse over his head. I think that’s when I knew I was fully sold on this movie’s brand of action, which is just over-the-top enough to be pleasantly silly. It helps that there’s some comic relief that really works, keeping the whole thing from getting too self-serious. I especially liked the running joke that develops out of McShane’s insistence that he’s psychically aware of when he’ll die. Before one battle, Hercules asks if it’s his time. “No,” he replies, “but I’m not sure about yours.”

It’s a sturdy, old-fashioned adventure with an eye for bright battle sequences and some moderately engaging ancient intrigue. It’s a movie wherein everyone involved seems to be on the same page about the kind of movie they were making. The cast is all likable wooden archetypes and the look has a glossy but humble B-movie charm. It also looks about as cheap as an expensive movie can look, with few standing sets, a couple dodgy CGI crowd shots, and lots of exterior location work. It’s knowingly small and chopped up. A few short and awkwardly inserted flashbacks involving Hercules’ backstory (including small roles for model Irina Shayk as his wife and Joseph Fiennes as a king) seem like vestigial plot points from a longer cut. But the whole thing is scrappy, and good enough in most respects.

Director Brett Ratner has little in the way of personal style, always slickly and competently executing the screenplay before him with his collaborators. (That’s how he’s managed a career split about evenly between entertaining schlock and schlock schlock.) His Hercules is an empty calorie dumb fun machine that keeps the pace up and spirits high. By the final plot complications and climactic confrontations, I was even invested in how it would resolve. I liked the studio programmer throwback appeal to a time when a big studio would make small and simple lazy-day matinee fare. Maybe it just succeeds in lowering expectations, the better to mildly exceed them, but, hey, when it works it works. 

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