The opening lines of Brett Ratner’s “Hercules” challenge the audiences’ knowledge of the titular legend. Based on Radical Studios’ comic book, this is certainly not a typical retelling of the son of Zeus’ exploits – and herein lies both the film’s strengths and weaknesses. Approaching the generally demigod-depicted character as a mere mortal and blurring the fantasy lines of his monumental achievements makes “Hercules” appear wholly original. And despite moments of tepid dialogue and tired clichés, it’s indeed a refreshingly clever take on the character. However, the originality stops shortly thereafter as the plot progresses into a serviceable rehash of “Seven Samurai” with weaker adversaries and predictable twists. The vision may be new for the Greek champion himself, but the cinematic ground on which it treads is well worn.
Enraged by her husband’s infidelity, Greek goddess Hera vows to kill Zeus’ half-human son, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson). In order to escape the immortal’s wrath, the mighty warrior undergoes twelve increasingly difficult labors and, upon completing the tasks, attempts to retire peacefully with his wife and children. But tragedy strikes and the indomitable guardian turns to mercenary work with the faithful companions he acquired during his trials. Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), a master Amazonian archer, Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), a Spartan knife expert, Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), a silent juggernaut of fury, and Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), a cryptic prophet, fight staunchly alongside Hercules while his unintimidating nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) spins the tales of his triumphs. When Lord Cotys (John Hurt), the King of Thrace, offers the famed hero his weight in gold for aid in fending off the demonic sorcerer Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann), the avaricious leader eagerly accepts. But as Hercules and his cadre set about training the ruler’s army and inch closer to their confrontation with the necromancer, they begin to question the motives of both themselves and their employer.
As is standard with modern fantasy fare, groups of heroes retain specific battle skills and distinct visuals (such as scars and armory) that set them apart primarily by type of soldier and almost never by memorable personalities. Hercules is clearly the muscle, while berserker Tydeus is the crazed brute who never utters a word. Atalanta is the attractive female archer and Amphiaraus is the cryptic seer with a sense of sarcasm. Iolaus offers additional comic relief as a storyteller and Autolycus rounds out the gang as a rather generic knife thrower. The action sequences tend to require the singular expertise of each fighter (not unlike the Magnificent Seven or the Fellowship of the Ring) and are exciting just for that aspect, yet they never require anything beyond varying weaponry proficiencies. They might as well all be mute.
Dwayne Johnson adds an aura of fun to almost all of his films, especially those with comedic overtones. While his physique is nothing short of herculean, the performance flatlines from a lack of humor. The action sequences, though kinetic and thrilling, tend to hog the spotlight in the absence of diverse emotions, while their lasting impact carries little gravity. Tight pacing and an ample production value afford the adventure momentum while an unexpectedly divergent plot offers welcome intrigue – at least, for those anticipating a more classic account of the Greek legend.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)