Watching Hercules feels an awful lot like being one of the dupes falling victim to the deluge of unbelievable tales surrounding the so-called son of Zeus. It seems like things kept getting packed onto the pile of things this film had to offer just to get some ambiguously agreeable end product. Despite those best/worst efforts, it ends up being a not terrible movie, but only just.
Starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the titular Hercules, we see a version of the hero that feels almost immediately foreign—though it is based on a comic. While visually fulfilling the part (my god, has there ever been a single person in the history of the world that can so capably take up space), we have a Hercules here that is not necessarily the demigod we’ve known through myth. He’s really just an incredibly strong man with a deadly and focused team to aid in bringing the legend to life.
He has accrued a pure warrior more animal than man, an Amazonian warrior, a pugilistic seer, a topnotch merc, and his nephew, a fellow more skilled at words and boasting than fighting. A dark past haunts the mountain-sized warrior-for-hire as he finds himself attempting to help a king in pushing back a potentially mystical and powerful foe named Rhesus.
Superficially, this is an immediately interesting setup. We so rarely see the full consideration of what it means to be a living (mythical) legend, and this plays fully into it. There is a sizable amount of deceit going on in perpetuating the conquests of the fallen son who defied Hera. It’s a bit like The Brothers Grimm and provides the most fascinating facet of the movie. Seeing and hearing how the smoke and mirrors work invite so many more intriguing questions.
The rest of the story, however, falls a little flat. Everything surrounding the circumstances of King Cotys of Thrace and his impending war against Rhesus comes across with such little urgency. Even when Hercules and Cotys discuss the immediacy of the upcoming battles, it feels as if everyone is a bit lackadaisical. Even the handful of twists that should have been remarkable ended up being revealed as No Duh moments.
The question of whether or not Rhesus is a supernatural foe doesn’t even seem important after one of the characters point out what the entire audience is thinking: who cares? We already saw in such vivid detail Hercules battle a hydra. Regardless of its veracity, we saw it. The interest had been lost long ago as the film kept jumping under a bar it set for itself.
And all of the setups for each subsequent plot twist only served to undermine another one. In the end, what should have been a laser-focused narrative of Hercules mortal reveal or betrayal or morbid past or any number of possibilities is instead muddled into a gestalt of confused intent.
One thing Hercules does have going for it, however, is that its battles are rather fun. The action feels real and has a nice grit to it, shot coherently and grandly. Even when portions of it are clearly computer generated like the numerous throwing knives and arrows and pointed spears and whatnot, it still comes across as believable because it’s all people. Real people being hurled and hit and smashed. It’s one of the benefits of not focusing on the monsters and myths side of Hercules’ legend.
It’s unfortunate, though, that the flow of the scale of each fight was inverted. The literal scale may have increased as the film went on, but the impact of each battle felt lessened as it progressed. The first major conflict was exciting and dynamic with so much collective movement across each of our hero’s teammates, and it felt increasingly funneled and restricted with each scuffle.
Perhaps the greatest failing of Hercules, however, was the film’s inability to capitalize on its most valuable asset, which is to say Johnson himself. His best films are where his inherent, nigh mythical charm are on full display. Walking Tall and The Rundown rode that straight to Successville. You could even probably sell a DVD solely containing his parts from Be Cool and Doom despite the quality of the rest of those films.
Instead, we have a brooding Johnson with so little to work with. It might have been different if the story revolved around Hercules’ unspoken, dark past, but it all feels in service of some other twist that happens about three-quarters of the way through. There are glimmers of where we get to see Johnson being the effervescent fellow he is, but it’s not nearly enough.
There’s no single part of Hercules that is broken enough to ruin the entire film, but there conversely is also nothing that works all that well. It’s like a racecar bound together with duct tape that can just barely get across the finish line. It gets the job done so no one is angry about it, but it also doesn’t win the race so everyone feels a little empty at the end anyways.
+ Dwayne Johnson fulfills the role of Hercules exceedingly well
+ Tackles an interesting facet of what myths and legends are
– Interwoven stories that twists that clumsily run into each other
– Fails to fully utilize Johnson’s capabilities
Final Score: 5 out of 10