Sword-and-sandal flicks fell out of favour for a long time, but the success of Gladiator eventually led to an even more annoying (and ongoing) trend of extremely grim and serious three-hour epics that trot out grimy Australian hunks and bearded British thesps to fight endless hordes of CGI centurions. The fact that Brett Ratner (he of Rush Hour and Red Dragon fame) was slated to direct one of these about Hercules starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson seemed downright depressing until I actually saw the film. Ratner’s Hercules is a breezy 98-minute action romp that’s both deeply, deeply stupid and unrelentingly entertaining.
Hercules (Johnson, looking every bit like a shredded, Samoan Dave Grohl) is a legendary warrior of Greek lore, celebrated across Greece for his tales of derring-do. He roves the land with his team of mercenaries (Rufus Sewell, Ian McShane, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Aksel Hennie and Reece Ritchie), accepting to run perilous missions for those willing to compensate them handsomely. King Cotys (John Hurt) calls upon the team to defeat the fearsome warlord Rhesus and bring peace to Thrace — until Hercules uncovers something even more nefarious brewing under the surface.
Forget the portentous dialogue and tortured moral questionings you may have come to associate with the genre; the film Hercules most closely resembles is the cartoon-like Conan the Destroyer, complete with corny one-liners, double entendres about cunnilingus and a scene where Hercules picks up a centaur and chucks him about 20 feet (his subsequent one-liner is memorable enough for me not to spoil here, but let’s just say it’s not usually the kind of thing dudes in loincloths are known to say). Every single plot development and every single line of dialogue is blindingly obvious and familiar, and the performances from an international cast that never once settles on a vaguely common accent run the gamut from focused (Johnson) to sleepy (McShane) to Liberace-level foppy (Joseph Fiennes, who plays a pigtailed powdered-bum of a king).
The film’s smartest move (and just about the only thing in the script that reads like any thought was put into it — it feels like the movie went into production with just an outline of scenes and “dummy” dialogue to be replaced later) is to bring into question the mythos of Hercules and reconfigure the film so that it steers away from the familiar “immortal demi-god completes 12 labours” that has become so ingrained in the character. It initially feels a bit like cheating, but it also allows the film to tighten its scope and focus more on the very basic explorations of revenge, honour and all that other shit that sword-fighting teaches us about.
Almost everything about Hercules is dumb as hell, and yet it mostly succeeds as a pulpy sword-and-sandal film precisely because it sets its sights low enough to know that the not-super-highbrow pairing of Johnson and Ratner won’t do itself any favours aiming for artistic relevance. It’s a down-and-dirty B-movie about clubbing things in the head that fully accepts the fact that, sometimes, three-page monologues about bravery are overshadowed by a former wrestler fighting three giant wolves barehanded.
Connoisseurs of Greek mythology and fans of Ridley Scott’s patented brand of dirt-covered misery epics are probably going to find Hercules irredeemably dumb and hokey (they wouldn’t be wrong), but those with a refined taste for abject stupidity and muscular carnage are going to have a pleasurable 98 minutes. ■
Hercules is in theatres now