Overview: The Rock is Hercules. Paramount/MGM; 2014; Rated PG-13; 98 Minutes.
This Movie is at Its Most Interesting When, in the opening act, the narrative introduces a theme unique to mythological or historical epics. Director Brett Ratner and writers Evan Spiliotopoulos and Ryan J. Condal offer the story of an aged Hercules who is years removed from his 12 fabled deeds, a mercenary trying to cope with memories of his savagely murdered family by seeking to earn a life of solitude. Hercules here is a fierce but human man who walks along with, in front of, behind, and in the shadow of his own mythology. For a few minutes of run-time, the movie has some interesting things to say about the nature of mythology (and mythologizing) by setting Hercules up as a man beside of his own legend. It is in this sense the actor is perfect for this role: The Rock is a cartoonishly intense showman persona that seems a wholly separated identity from the carefree, fun-loving Dwayne Johnson of interviews. And, if in later segments, the movie leans on this fresh thematic fencepost a bit too heavily– if the Rock raises a knowing people’s eyebrow a bit too much in recognition of the bit– who can fault the film for force-feeding the theme, given the standard crowd one would expect of a Hercules movie.
This Movie is Most Entertaining When it sets Hercules in front of an army in open geography and sounds the trumpet of war. The most surprising aspect of this film is Ratner’s awareness of the space within an expansive battlefield. In the first extended group battle scene (I’m thinking of the one against the primitive villagers, not the pirates in the introduction), Ratner frames violent kinetic energy as well as one could hope, even selling the moment wherein Hercules lifts and tosses a charging horse and his rider. This stretch of the film is elevated by Ratner’s constant awareness of all the individual fight’s relationship to the surrounding battle and his dedication to impractically illustrated (but nonetheless grizzly) violent collisions. These scenes also offer a chance to punctuate on some solid and colorful supporting performances from John Hurt, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, and, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, who, as Amazonian warrior woman Atalanta, nimbly climbs her way to the status of “Best Female Superhero” in a summer saturated with comic book adaptations.
And Even When This Movie Is At Its Worst, it’s still not bad. Granted, there are some mistakes that can’t be forgiven even if the movie’s ambition is to be fun. In the middle of certain battle sequences, Ratner inexplicably adopts a rule that if a warrior/horse/weapon/chariot is unseen by the viewing audience than he/she/it must also be unseen by the opponent, setting up some unbelievable surprise attacks. There are telegraphed twists, and the framing of the action suffers when it’s moved inside to tighter spaces. And when the film has an opportunity to present the spine-tingling moment of impassioned speech we have grown to expect from the Maximus/Achilles/William Wallace model of epic, it fails to capitalize. But Hercules is a legend of deeds and strength, and in that sense, the role is a perfect fit for The Rock, who gives his best performance to date in Brett Ratner’s best movie to date.