Hercules (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Hercules (2014)

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Not my heroIt's not often that I'm able to avoid media in advance of any film I'm looking forward to watching.  That happened with Hercules, where the first time I got to view the trailer was when I loaded it to get screengrabs for the review you are reading.  After watching the trailer I decided that if Hercules was created by a talented team of people, then we might have had the first successful anti-epic since Stanley Kubrick took the piss out of romanticizing the past with Barry Lyndon.  The trailer promises a level of supernatural action that does not happen in Hercules, but part of the lesson of this telling is that superheroic deeds are exaggerations of the actions of mere mortals.

That's an interesting tension, but the qualifier to following through with that interest is that the team behind the camera be as talented as the performers in front of it.  Brett Ratner, he of the juvenile sense of humor and point 'n click style of direction, is not savvy enough to tell a story about myth conflicting with reality.  Neither is the screenwriting team of Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, the first of which has little previous experience writing feature-length narratives, while the latter has supplied the world with screenplays for soft-core films and just about every direct-to-video Disney sequel for a decade.

I like to be surprised, but the bland experience I had watching Hercules made a lot of sense when I found out it was assembled by people who take little risks and rely on existing characterization of popular figures to drive the narrative forward.  It's bad enough that this film brought great performers like John Hurt and Rufus Sewell down with it, but the sin of inflicting Dwayne Johnson with a humorless role that saps his natural charisma is unpardonable.  The man excels at playing larger than life figures who are driven by some great purpose or need, see the underrated Faster for my favorite example of this, and is stuck with a role that feeds into none of his natural talents.  That's just one, of many, wrong-headed decisions that sank this terrible film.

Hercules' face is obscured in the legends that precede him, as part of the point is that it does not matter who Hercules is or what he looks like. This is one of many interesting ideas that starts and stops there.

Hercules' face is obscured in the legends that precede him, as part of the point is that it does not matter who Hercules is or what he looks like. This is one of many potentially fruitful story threads that is never developed.

Ratner does not have a history as an interesting stylist.  I've seen every film he's directed and he's perfected the art of getting a few characters in front of the camera to say their lines, and that's about it.  Hercules takes this dull approach a step further and saps all life from the camera by filming almost every scene in a drab combination of gray and brown.  This fits the story motif somewhat as it is more about the dirty reality behind the legends, but there is nothing interesting done with the fore or backgrounds to help distinguish between one scene and the next.  The cumulative effect is akin to watching clumpy wads of clay swirl down a large drain for an hour and a half which someone bangs pots in the background - dull to look at, and annoying to pay attention to.

Now the central conflict of Hercules, which boils down to people being disappointed by the human behind the myth, is bewilderingly handled.  Hercules bleeds like mortal men and his team comprised of drug addicts and people with violence in their hearts.  But they are still capable of superheroic feats, like Hercules lifting two men and throwing them a good two stories up into the air, or the joking predictions of the team diviner that just so happen to be true.  This is jarring writing and presentation as it never fully commits to either aspect of the story.  Either Hercules is a con artist who happens to be very strong, or he is a near-god able to crush mortals with ease - having it both ways does nothing to enhance the story and robs the fantasy of its power and the reality of its potential lessons.

It doesn't help that Ratner's one trademark, a juvenile sense of direction, is in full-display during the worst parts of the film.  There's the homophobic trap of the beginning where one of Hercules' crew is essentially threatened by getting something poked in his bum.  Then the eye-rolling moment in the film where Hercules cusses out a cheesy one-liner which doubles as a bizarre rupture in world-building as it is the only time anyone says anything outside of a PG atmosphere.  The worst of these moments involves the Amazon on the team that the film has to grind to a halt for to allow various men to blurt incredulous lines about how a woman can't be in the same danger as men, and then having her stop at just the right time during dangerous battles so she can climb a tower for a quick up-skirt shot.  Perhaps Ratner would be better off remaking Porky's instead of putting Oscar nominees and cherished stars through this nonsense.

Even on marble steps and surrounded by flame the color tone shades toward brown. I admire the dedication to this decision in a misanthropic way.

Even on marble steps and surrounded by flame the color shades toward brown. I admire the dedication to this decision in a cynical way.

The immaturity leads to one of the most offensive oversights of the year in what is originally billed as a traditional action scene.  Hercules and his team, leading an unskilled army into battle, are fighting under the illusion of self-defense and nearly slaughter an indigenous brown-skinned tribe of grunting tribals.  Putting aside the already problematic sight of this, the advertising makes it even worse by instead presenting them as gray-skinned beings with eyes that are on fire.  In the final act of the film when the truth is revealed this slaughter is never brought up again as the heroes are fighting more to save the fair-skinned woman who got them into this mess than to avenge the near genocide of an entire race of people.

Perhaps there's a lot that was cut out of this film that would have provided some context about why no one speaks of this.  There's certainly a lot of hints that the film was cobbled together out of a different cut as various villains are introduced and exit with barely a scene or two to their name and entire sub-plots given long passages of dialogue only to never be resolved.  This aimless air is reflected in the editing, which is easily the worst of the year, and best exemplified in a nightmarish flash-back that cuts back to a shot of Dwayne Johnson looking just off to the side which is held much too long, giving the impression that he stopped in the middle of an important conversation to zone out about his family for a few minutes.  This is a moment almost custom built for riffers looking to get some fun out of a bad film, but not for an audience member looking for good entertainment.

There's an interesting film in the idea behind Hercules, but there is no blessing that could have been granted to the creative team which would have salvaged the potential from the dreck.  Some generous reviewer out there might look at the deliberately misleading advertising and myth-questioning narrative and see a great joke on us all.  The better explanation for Hercules' quality is that it's narrated by a stoner, directed by a twit, and written by people who don't know better.  I had hopes going in, but I'd be doing a great disservice to you readers by not reporting the disappointment as I left.

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Tail - HerculesHercules (2014)

Directed by Brett Ratner.
Screenplay written by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos.
Starring Dwayne Johnson.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Good review Andrew. I didn’t mind this movie as much. Most of that has to do with the fact that I was surprised a movie by Brett Ratner wasn’t god-awful.

    • Thanks for the comment Dan! We will have to differ on the relative merits of the film, as it was the first truly god-awful film he’s done (Rush Hour 2 being just plain awful).

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